Last July, in the hours before the state budget became official, legislators reached a last-minute agreement to keep the state’s Shellfish Purification Plant in Newburyport open. Now, less than a year later, Governor Deval Patrick seems unconvinced that it should remain open, and has targeted the plant for closure - estimating that the state could save $350,000 annually.
The plant, which is the country’s sole state-run facility that cleanses soft-shell clams of contaminants, has sat on a quiet stretch of Plum Island since 1928. For the 100 clammers who make their living digging in moderately polluted clam flats in Boston, Newburyport, Salisbury, Revere, Saugus, Winthrop, Hingham, Hull, Quincy, and Weymouth, the plant is central to keeping their industry alive. Clammers bring their bushels to the plant, where they are soaked in saltwater bath for two days and cleaned of contaminants. Once cleansed, they are sold to restaurants and seafood dealers.
For years, though, state officials have expressed concern about subsidizing an industry that generates about $1.3 million annually, a fraction of the state’s $25 million annual shellfish industry. And, over the last few decades, production at the plant is down, according to Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game. In 1997, 53,000 bushels of clams were treated at the plant; last year the number was 11,995 bushels, said Griffin, who attributed the reduction to a virus that has spread to clam flats in Boston and Winthrop, and a cleaner Boston Harbor, which has opened up more flats that are not polluted. She said $80,000 of the $350,000 operation comes from revenue derived from clam depuration.
“It’s being proposed just because of the general tough economic times we’re in; they need to reduce the budget,’’ said Griffin, who was asked by legislators last year to develop a management plan to reduce the plant’s operating costs.
Griffin said she would release that plan later this month and said one proposal is to open the plant up to uncontaminated clams that could be de-sanded to make them less gritty to eat. She declined to comment on any other recommendations or proposals that would be included in the report.
Griffin said if the plant closes then the state will close the conditionally restricted clam flats where the 100 clam diggers work. She said the closure would have to be enforced by environmental police, and other law enforcement.
Most of the clams harvested in the state come from clean clam beds on the North Shore and the Cape, and make up 86 percent of the clams sold, Griffin said. They are not required to go through the purification plant. The rest of the clams come from mildly contaminated flats in places like Boston Harbor, Revere’s Point of Pines, and other flats on the North and South shores.
Bob Stanley, who owns Stanley Seafood in Revere, said the closure of the plant would be catastrophic for the small industry.
Stanley, who employs 20 diggers - one-fifth of the state’s diggers who work in the restricted flats - painted a dark picture for his business and the rest of the industry if the Newburyport plant is included in the final budget cuts. “I would be out of business,’’ he said, and added that clam prices would probably increase because they would be shipped from out of state during periods of high demand.
“It would mean the loss of hundreds and hundreds of jobs throughout the state - between the clam diggers, the shuckers, the delivery men, and the people who work at the plant, and the restaurants,’’ said Stanley.
John Denehy, a third-generation clammer and spokesman for the Boston Harbor Clam Diggers Association, said the state needs to consider the long-term implications of closing the plant.
“To cut a few hundred thousand dollars from the budget, a system that brings in millions of dollars in tax revenue will be lost. This is the epitome of a bad business deal. The entire clamming industry in the state of Massachusetts depends on the running of this plant,’’ he said.
Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the Republican minority leader from Gloucester, lobbied to keep the plant open last year and said he is awaiting Griffin’s management report. Tarr also said he would support the plant’s privatization if it made fiscal sense. “I want to make sure that this kind of facility is available to people who depend on it for their livelihood,’’ said Tarr.Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.