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Possible closure of shellfish cleansing plant threatens diggers’ livelihoods

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By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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NEWBURYPORT — Dug from the mudflats of Boston Harbor, clams travel here by the bushel to soak in a temperature-controlled saltwater bath treated with ultraviolet light. They like this spa-like environment so much, they depurate, or cleanse themselves of contaminants, making them fit for their ultimate dates with drawn butter and tartar sauce.

“Happy shellfish depurate,’’ said Diane Regan, a bacteriologist at the state’s Shellfish Purification Plant on Plum Island Point. “Happy as a clam — that’s how we like to keep them.’’

The clams and the dozens of workers who dig them may not be happy for much longer as the decadesold purification plant — the only state-supported facility of its kind in the nation — faces a shutdown under Governor Deval Patrick’s proposed budget cuts. The state pays much of the more than $400,000 a year it costs to run the plant, which last year treated about 15,000 bushels of shellfish taken from moderately polluted beds, such as those at Logan International Airport or Dorchester’s Malibu Beach.

In the context of the state’s $365 billion economy, the impact of the plant’s closure would be minuscule. The wild harvest of shellfish is a $25 million-a-year industry in Massachusetts, with soft-shell clams, better known as steamers, accounting for about one-fifth of the harvest. Clams taken from moderately polluted beds account for less than $1 million.

But for the 100 or so carefully supervised diggers who work such clam flats, the shutdown would be a blow not only to their income, but also to their place in a historic New England industry.

Chet MacDonald, 79, started clamming at age 11, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Clamming earns MacDonald about $15,000 a year, helping him pay insurance costs he couldn’t otherwise afford.

“We’ve been digging for generations here,’’ he said. “You keep digging because it’s a way of life.’’

Mary Griffin, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game, said its hard to justify keeping the plant open when her agency is also trying to protect other essential parts of commercial shellfishing, including testing state waters to ensure they remain clean.

“We will try to manage the situation as best we can. If we don’t find adequate funding to keep the plant open, we’ll likely have to look at closing it,’’ Griffin said. “There are not a lot of good choices in this difficult budget environment.’’

The city of Newburyport, once known as “Clam Town,’’ built the Shellfish Purification Plant at least 80 years ago to cleanse clams taken from the Merrimack River. The plant later came under state control and began receiving harvests from other areas, with many of the clams eventually exported to other states.

Several times, the purification facility has faced closure, including early in the last decade when the state faced large budget shortfalls. With the state again needing to trim its costs because of the poor economy, the plant’s future is uncertain.

With the cleanup of the once-sewerlike Boston Harbor and other dirty waterways, the amount of clams coming to the plant from polluted beds has fallen by nearly half, to 15,000 bushels from nearly 27,000 in 2001, according to the state. Last year, digger fees — $6 per bushel cleaned — only amounted to $90,000, or about one-fifth what it costs to run the plant. Grants have helped with other costs, but not enough.

A group of North Shore legislators is trying to save the purification plant, said Adam Martignetti, a spokesman for state Representative Michael A. Costello, who represents Newburyport.

“From our perspective, it’s an important economic engine in the state that goes beyond just the operation of the plant itself,’’ Martignetti said. “It trickles down to the clam diggers, restaurants, food suppliers.’’

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo also met with clammers, said spokesman Seth Gitell, and expressed concern that jobs might be lost.

“He was very sympathetic to their stories,’’ Gitell said, “and thinks it’s important that a way be found to meet what they need budgetarily.’’

At the plant last week, a batch of clams from Logan soaked in a tub of bubbling water. Fisheries technician Christopher Schillaci and Regan, the bacteriologist, tested the shellfish, shucking the clams, grinding the meat, and preparing samples that would show if any of the bivalves were contaminated.

Forty miles away, a group of clammers worked Malibu, digging the Dorchester shoreline for hours before loading their harvest for transport to the purification center. There are currently only seven so-called master diggers licensed to harvest such clams from moderately polluted beds, and more than 80 “subordinate diggers’’ permitted to work under them. Though a small community, the diggers say they are committed to preserving the purification plant, and their sense of purpose.

“Massachusetts is a fishing community,’’ said clammer John Denehy, 38, whose father and grandfather introduced him to the trade at about age 10. “I mean, not everybody can work in the tech field. You need your farmers, you need your fishermen.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.