The Gerbil: Mutant crabs found living at waste transfer station; ‘proof of contamination,’ proponents of move say

A colony of land crabs slowed traffic on Sutton Road, near the entrance to the San Juan Island solid waste transfer station. - File photo
A colony of land crabs slowed traffic on Sutton Road, near the entrance to the San Juan Island solid waste transfer station.
— image credit: File photo

Neighbors say the discovery of a colony of mutant crabs living at the Sutton Road solid waste transfer station is proof that the site is contaminated.

Scientists from the state Department of Ecology believe the population is descended from crabs that migrated from the harbor up a stream to a wetlands outside the transfer station site, where they adjusted to living in fresh water. Over time, however, they mutated because of exposure to nitrates and other pollutants that reportedly leach from the transfer station into the wetlands, experts say.

Traffic to and from the waste transfer station was slowed today by a colony of crabs crossing Sutton Road. During a press conference at the waste transfer station, a large crab was observed trying to get into a trash can.

“This discovery confirms what we have theorized all along, that runoff from the waste transfer station has tainted underground water and neighboring wetlands,” said Barbara Marrett, a Hillview Terrace resident who has called for the Sutton Road transfer station to be closed and a new transfer station built on Beaverton Valley Road.

The creature has sparked a lot of interest among local environmentalists. Russel Barsh announced that KWIAHT, the Center for the Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea, is studying a land crab carcass to determine if the crab is instead a previously unknown species indigenous to the islands. He has named the animal the "Sutton Road crab."

The U.W. Friday Harbor Labs has taken possession of three live crabs to study their diet.

The Sutton Road crabs resemble robber crabs found in the South Pacific. Those crabs are believed to have formerly been ocean crabs that adjusted to living on land.

U.W. Friday Harbor Labs director Ken Sebens offered an explanation as to how the Sutton Road crab came to exist.

"Mutations are changes to the nucleotide sequence of the genetic material of an organism," he said, putting it in simple terms.

"Mutations can be caused by copying errors in the genetic material during cell division, by exposure to ultraviolet or ionizing radiation, or by chemical mutagens."

Stephanie Buffum-Field, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, announced that Friends may file a lawsuit seeking to have Sutton Road declared land crab habitat. The Town of Friday Harbor owns the property and leases it to the county for operation as a solid waste transfer station. If the site is declared Sutton Road crab habitat, town officials may seek to have the habitat managed by the county.

Town Councilwoman Carrie Brooks said the county is responsible for the conditions that led to the Sutton Road crab's unfortunate existence.

"Shame on you," Brooks said to county Public Works Department officials. "You've been really bad people to let the solid waste transfer station deteriorate the way it has."

Public Works Director Jon Shannon didn't have an opinion yet on whether his department could manage land crab habitat. "It depends on if we want a long-term solution or something in the short run," he said.

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