Press Release | October 22, 2009

Discharge of Fish Waste Going Under Radar in Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

As the federal government redoubles its efforts to restore the ailing Chesapeake Bay, a Virginia fish processing plant's discharge of high-nutrient fish waste, comparable to the level of pollution from D.C.'s huge Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, could be thwarting those efforts.

In a letter (pdf) to the Environmental Protection Agency this week, the Southern Environmental Law Center revealed a potentially significant source of nutrients that has apparently gone under the regulatory radar at the state and federal level for several decades.  SELC is urging the EPA to thoroughly investigate the discharge of fish waste and take appropriate action.

According to SELC's review of various documents, it appears that Omega Protein Corporation in Reedville has been discharging 13,000 pounds or more of organic waste into the middle of the bay every day during fishing season (May to December) for many years without specific authorization.  In excessive amounts, organic compounds such as those in fish waste, and other sources like agricultural runoff, use up oxygen in the bay and starve aquatic life.

During menhaden season, Omega's vessels use bay water to keep freshly caught fish cold while they are out on the bay.  Before returning to Reedville, the crew discharges this “refrigeration water,” which contains some fish blood and waste, back into the bay. At the unloading dock, the boats use fresh water to pump the tons of fish off the boat and into the processing plant. This “bailing water” is reused until it becomes too thick with fish waste to facilitate the pumping process. The vessels dump most of this bailing water in the bay on their way to the fishing grounds; occasionally they dump it further out in the ocean.

Omega's state water-pollution permit allows the discharge of the refrigeration water, but not the bailing water, which could be almost 200 times more potent than raw sewage.  The company's own samples from 1996, 2007 and 2008 show the bailing water ranged from 37,500 milligrams per liter (roughly equivalent to parts per million) to 150,000 mg/L of organic matter. By comparison, the nutrient content in discharges from most sewage treatment plants is 30 mg/L, and for raw sewage is 200 mg/L. 

“We recognize that Omega has made substantial investments to improve the environmental performance of its Reedville plant in recent years, but dumping fish waste directly in the bay clearly defeats the purpose,” said SELC senior attorney Rick Parrish.  Even though the practice of discharging bailing water in the bay is a custom reaching back 30 years or more, it likely runs afoul of Clean Water Act standards, and is certainly impeding the bay's recovery, he said.

“It's incumbent on the EPA, the state, and Omega to determine the extent of the discharges and ecological impacts on the bay, and to quickly resolve the issue,” Parrish said.

Among other efforts, the EPA is now in the process of developing for the first time a bay-wide plan to set “total maximum daily loads” (TMDL) allowed for such nutrients, as prescribed in the Clean Water Act.  SELC, in its letter, urges the EPA to investigate the bailing water discharges and account for that pollution as it develops the TMDL standards and clean-up plans. SELC also asks the agency to assist the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in renewing Omega's water pollution discharge permit next year.

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.