Turning the tide on pollution in turbid Narragansett Bay
Every working day for 40 years, Bob Rayhill has left his house in Warwick about half an hour before dawn so he can be out on the waters of Narragansett Bay by sunrise.Skip to next paragraph
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The water is smoother in the morning, and Mr. Rayhill usually skims his 18 -foot fiberglass boat toward the middle of the bay, where he will work his ''bullrake'' scoop over the bottom for clams.
Bullraking hasn't changed much over the years. But now Rayhill steers a boat with an 85 horsepower outboard engine in contrast to years of rowing a 13-foot wooden skiff. Today his clams bring about 80 cents a pound, as opposed to 5 cents a pound when he first started.
But the price increases have been offset by steadily rising costs. And, most important, the clams just aren't there in the same numbers they used be.
''We all came when it (clamming) was pretty good going, but a lot have ended up leaving. It has slowed up a lot,'' he says of friends who have quit or simply headed south to Florida.
The major problem for the industry here, Rayhill says, is the pollution that has claimed prime clam beds in the upper arm of the bay near Providence. Raw sewage, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants have closed nearly 10,000 acres of water, primarily in the upper bay, to all kinds of fishing for about four of the last five years.
''It (the bay) is in fair condition. The water has been getting better, but it's still pretty bad in the upper bay,'' Rayhill says.
Sewage bacteria ordinarily flush out of a clam's system within a week after the source of pollution stops. On the other hand, oils, metals, and chemicals may remain within such bottom-dwelling marine life for much longer periods, scientists say.
Although blatant dumping of toxic substances directly into bay tributaries and sewer systems has been standard industry practice for decades, that practice is under fire by environmentalists and may be changing.
Save the Bay - a citizens environmental watchdog group - has probably had the biggest impact on cleaning up the bay. The group has grown from a seven-member organization in 1970 to more than 10,000 dues-paying members and 475 active volunteers in 1984.
During the last 14 years, the group has developed considerable muscle. And federal, state, and municipal officials apparently are paying more attention to the bay's pollution issues. At a recent annual Save the Bay meeting, Al Alm, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), promised members the agency would strictly enforce new federal restrictions to limit disposal of heavy metals (such as lead, cadmium, silver, mercury, zinc, and chromium used mostly by the jewelry industry here) into municipal sewers.
Though members liked Mr. Alm's message, they clearly are not willing to entrust the EPA with anything as important as cleaning up ''our bay.''
''If it hadn't been for them (Save the Bay), I don't know what we'd do. The EPA sure doesn't do much,'' says Loraine Tisdale of Cranston, who joined the organization two years ago.
''You don't know what kind of prosecution you're going to get from EPA,'' agrees Trudy Coxe, executive director of Save the Bay. ''If the agency isn't tough on this one (new heavy metal restrictions effective in April), it's going to be very tough to enforce later on.
'''We got going before EPA existed, and (we) got officials to say 'no' (to industry) a long time before saying 'no' was even heard of,'' she adds.
The Providence River has been closed to shellfishing for decades, and, since 1969, the upper bay has been closed much of the time due to high bacteria counts in the water.
After a 12-hour day of probing and scraping the bay's bottom, Rayhill returned home with about 87 pounds of clams - mostly littlenecks, cherrystones, and quahogs (pronounced CO-hogs). This winter the catches of less than 100 pounds have been ''very bad,'' he says. The clam beds are overworked and the industry in the Narragansett has steadily declined since 1977, Rayhill says.
Much of the pollution comes from the billions of gallons of untreated sewage that each year seep into the bay from bad septic tanks or gush in from poorly maintained, inadequate municipal treatment plants.
Last year 131 million gallons of sewage effluent daily entered the bay from 12 sewage treatment plants, says Eva Hoffman, a research scientist at the University of Rhode Island. An unknown percentage was untreated raw sewage.