Chlorine—a Toxin Found in Quilcene Bay
We began monitoring through Greenfleet Monitoring Expeditions on Quilcene Bay in 2010 (see our reports at Greenfleet). During the first 3 years we monitored for dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and to a lesser degree, nitrates. Our reports have indicated that Quilcene Bay has very serious problems with high dissolved oxygen which indicates high level of nitrates in the water, and very high levels of suspended solids most of which come from Coast hatchery’s wastewater. Then, later that same year, we reported that Pacific Seafood—a large international corporation—had purchased Coast Seafoods with plans for a major expansion. (see list of links for details)
My concerns about Coast’s expansion were detailed to the Department of Ecology in September. In response, Ecology ordered Coast to perform its own wastewater tests in order to ascertain that they were not putting pollutants into the estuary. (Subsequent investigation showed that Pacific / Coast had already prepared for the expansion to begin immediately after the study was concluded.) As expected, the report claimed that “Coast Seafoods Company’s hatchery is fully compliant with applicable regulatory requirements and is not negatively impacting the waters of Quilcene Bay.” (see full report)
Since spring of 2013 the whole picture has changed. According to their website (the Pacific / Coast Hatchery has increased fivefold its pre-purchase number of oyster spat produced. (ie: baby oysters) As a result, wildlife above and below the water surface has been greatly impacted. For the most part, the birds and mammals are gone—following the fish to somewhere. At the end of 2012 and throughout 2013, we blamed this phenomenon on the increased amount of suspended solids in the estuary’s waters. But that changed in May of 2014 when Connie and I got a good sniff of the air at the Herb Beck marina. Chlorine!
Chlorine: A Dangerous Toxin
Our research into chlorine showed that whether used in a backyard pool or a shellfish hatchery, chlorine is very poisonous to most living organisms—including fish and shellfish—at very low levels. The US Fish and Wildlife Service says that if 1 pint of chlorine is added to 20,000 gallons of water, that water will be poisonous to fish. Because chlorine is so deadly to fish and other aquatic animals, it is essential that this form of hazardous waste be removed from effluent before it is poured into our streams and estuaries. (See ______) Most developed and developing nations of the world have very strict controls on chlorine in wastewater.
According to the accompanying graphic (see CG-6) chlorine can combine with other chemicals. For example chlorine exposed to ammonia (which is found in oyster feces) forms chloramine, a more persistent form of chlorine. It can be ingested by many marine animals, killing or weakening them. And while some chlorine can simply evaporate, it can also be spread by currents until it eventually reaches harmless levels—causing much harm in the meantime.
Chlorine as a disinfectant in shellfish hatcheries:
Chlorine is commonly used in hatcheries, generally in the form of sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) as a disinfectant. Because shellfish hatcheries want only “clean” water with microoganisms that result in maximum production, they filter and disinfect incoming water, often using chlorine. The water is then typically dechlorinated with sodium thiosulfate after which it is inoculated with special strains of algae they have purchased or, usually, grown in-house. Then the tanks and equipment for growing shellfish and their algal food are disinfected between each use. The chlorine-laden water and other waste such as feces are drained—and hopefully treated—then the marine water, plus fresh water used for rinsing et cetera, is returned to its source (in our case it’s Quilcene Bay) and the process begins again.
Most shellfish hatcheries are “mom-and-pop” operations that do little damage to the environment even though they do produce some toxins, nitrates, and other pollutants. That is probably why the EPA and state environmental agencies have so far deemed them “inconsequential” to the water bodies on which they are located (usually larger than Quilcene Bay). However, when the world’s largest shellfish hatchery—as claimed on Coast’s webpage—is located in a poorly-flushed 3-square-mile bay (per WA Dept. of Ecology) that connects to the famously poorly-flushed Hood Canal, we have a situation well worth investigating. The fact that the vast majority of the oysters hatched there are shipped far away and don’t mitigate the local damage just adds to the problem.
How we test for chlorine:
Because of limited budget and expertise, we opted to use standard methodology for determining concentrations of free and total chlorine as outlined in the instruction manual for our LaMotte test instrument. We collect samples in sealed glass jars protected from direct sunlight and agitation. They are delivered within 15 minutes to our portable facilities inside a 40-foot sailboat to be analyzed by our Smart 3 colorimeter (EPA accepted) using the DPD method—which is commonly used by citizen scientists and for some commercial applications. (See details of our testing system.)
Legal limits on chlorine use:
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it is illegal to discharge wastewater with levels of chlorine higher than 13 parts per billion. In direct agreement with the EPA standard, Washington State (WAC 173-201A-240) tells us that at the discharge point the total residual chlorine must not exceed 13 parts per billion. Our testing of the Coast / Pacific hatchery’s output indicates that the chlorine at the discharge point and in the surrounding waters are well above that amount. (See WAC on ______ )
There seems to be no question that the law is being violated when chlorine levels in Quilcene Bay are consistently exceeding 7.5 parts per billion—the legal limit for chronic exposure—which is what is happening according to our analysis. (See our results.) The only question that remains is what Jefferson County’s Department of Environmental Health, Washington’s Department of Ecology, and the people of Jefferson County will do to stop the pollution.
How chlorine could be removed the hatchery’s effluent:
The most popular way for the chlorine to be rendered (more or less) harmless is by channeling the contaminated water to a holding pond where it is aerated and exposed to sunlight until most of the chlorine evaporates or forms less harmful compounds. However, to get chlorine below EPA limits, chemicals such as thiosulfate are usually used. For such a large operation as Coast / Pacific hatchery in Quilcene, the treatment system would probably need a rather large settling pond and some sophisticated equipment. I’m sure a good engineer would have fun with the project. (For more details on the shellfish hatchery processes, see Ch______)
To remove the chlorine only—which to me would not be acceptable—they could simply inject thiosulfate into the wastewater. (We experimented with the chemical in our miniature lab and it proved to be quite effective.) However, using only thiosulfate at the Pacific / Coast hatchery would not do what needs to be done for our estuary. Simply, just sprinkling a few crystals of thiosulfate won’t do the job!
Conclusion: Must Coast Seafoods leave Quilcene Bay?
We don’t know! However, we do know that getting rid of the chlorine won’t remove the other pollutants from the hatchery’s wastewater. The baby oysters still poop their nutrients—and billions of baby oysters generate a lot of poop, some algae are dumped before they’re eaten by the spat, and there’s bound to be other material and chemicals finding their way into the hatchery’s drains and subsequently into the estuary. (See report on suspended solids.) Simply, the only way to stop all pollutants will be to build a comprehensive treatment system.
One idea passed to the Port Commissioners at a public meeting was to replace the hatchery with a commercial marine center for encouraging tourism and local use of Quilcene Bay and Herb Beck Marina. Such an idea would, of course, entail much public discussion since the economic issues involving the use of this area are complex.
However, if Coast/Pacific continues to operate the hatchery in a manner similar to the past 2 years, what will happen to Quilcene Bay and Dabob Bay – and Northern Hood Canal? Will we become another Chesapeake Bay and Love Canal where we will then be forced to spend millions of dollars and decades in cleaning up? Does anyone really care? Do you?