Discreet decision on sewer plant upsets clam diggers
FREEPORT — In the face of overwhelming criticism Monday, the Sewer District Board of Trustees agreed to undo changes to the sewer treatment plant's hours of operation.
The revised operating hours – enacted without knowledge of the public, clammers, the Town Council and some trustees – could have slashed the incomes of more than 50 families that rely on shellfish harvesting by restricting the hours available for digging in the town's flats.
Nearly 40 people, including town councilors and members of the Maine Clammers Association and Shellfish Conservation Commission attended the trustees' Monday night meeting to express their concern about the policy change.
The hours of operation were changed from the longstanding 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, to 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
Shellfish harvesters were irate, and by the end of the meeting the trustees agreed to reverse the decision.
Sewer District Superintendent Tom Allen said the decision to change the plant hours was made so the sewer district employees could spend more time with their families and have better hours.
He said he talked to the employees and they said they "didn't want to work clammer hours."
Walter Coffin, a member of the Maine Clammers Association, said it was morally wrong to punish shellfish harvesters in such a difficult economic time.
"It's not right to close the plant early so you can be home at four for tea," he said.
According to Allen, the first call came from the state Department of Marine Resources and was not prompted by the trustees or him. He said the DMR representative "asked me if we wanted to make any changes."
Eric Horne, shellfish harvester, secretary of the Shellfish Conservation Commission and co-owner of Flying Point Oysters, said he was frustrated by the apparently covert action.
He said he called the trustees Monday and found at least four of them were unaware of the changes to the treatment plant hours, and said that others claimed the change was sparked by DMR.
"The sewer district made a deal with the town and DMR and they went back on it," Horne said. "We found out the hours were changed because DMR sent an e-mail saying our hours are changed. We were not informed by the board."
He said the DMR notification was sent Dec. 10.
According to Town Manager Dale Olmstead, the town, the sewer district and the Department of Marine Resources agreed in May 1994 to limit shellfish harvesting to Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with no weekends or holidays.
"Closing one day equates to 20 percent of the harvesters' income," Olmstead said. "It's significant."
The agreement was altered without notification or new discussions, he said.
Valy Steverlynck, co-owner of Flying Point Oysters, said due to numerous malfunctions of the alarm and notification system at the sewer district, the DMR and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lost faith in Freeport's ability to properly manage its treatment plant. She said the agencies put restrictions on the plant, allowing shellfish harvesting on the Harraseeket River only when the building is physically manned.
"DMR responds to hours, it does not set the hours," she said.
Councilor Joe Migliaccio said it didn't "smell right" that the DMR called the sewer district asking about possible changes.
"This seems to be a personnel problem," he said. "I thought we had a three-way memorandum of understanding."
Newly elected Trustee Leland Arris Jr., attending his second meeting, said he was unaware there was a decision made about the change in plant hours. He said the topic was discussed at the last meeting, but was tabled.
"This decision is very premature in my mind," Arris said. "I feel like I am left out of the loop here."
He said the board could not make decisions that affect more than just the ratepayers or allow Allen to make unilateral decisions.
"Tom is a director under the direction of the trustees," he said. "It is the responsibility of the board to make decisions collectively."
Board Chairman Leon Arsenault had a different view. He said as the plant manager, Allen has the right to make the policy changes unilaterally.
He said the only purpose of the trustees is to oversee the process of waste water, and "nothing else."
Peter Coffin, former sewer district trustee and shellfish harvester, said the plant is for all residents.
"You have a commitment to rate users and taxpayers and a commitment to clean our rivers and streams," he said. "You got to get on board."
He said not only do ratepayers benefit from clean water, but shellfish harvesters depend on it to make a living.
"You are responsible for an entire spectrum," he said. "As a residual, clammers reap the benefits of a good solid operation."
Although the trustees did not vote on the decision to return to the old hours, Allen agreed to contact the DMR by Tuesday, Dec. 16, to amend the policy. The hours would be returned to the original time, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Mike Ashby, another new member of the board of trustees and shellfish harvester, said he thought the meeting went well and expected Allen to make the call to DMR as he said he would.
"I think they understand that this issue is about everybody, not just the ratepayers," Ashby said.