Health Concerns Close Record Number of U.S. Beaches in 2006

WASHINGTON, DC, August 7, 2007 (ENS) – Across the United States, beach water was unsafe for swimming a record number of days in 2006, according to the annual beach water quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

Maryland's Hacks Point Beach and New Jersey's Beachwood Beach West were the two dirtiest U.S. beaches last year, the report shows. Sixty percent of water samples from each of these beaches violated public health standards, putting beachgoers at risk of stomach and respiratory ailments, hepatitis and other serious health problems.

Using the latest data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, researchers tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at 3,500 ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches. The results appear in the NRDC's 17th annual report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches."

"Vacations are being ruined and families can't use the beaches in their own communities because of the pollution in our beachwater," said Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC's Oceans Initiative. "This pollution stems from the sewage and contaminated stormwater that are permitted to enter our swimming waters."

Beach closings and warnings due to pollution nearly doubled along New York and New Jersey coastlines, the report documents.

West Meadow Beach in Suffolk County, New York (Photo courtesy Patryck Krutewicz)
New York State's Atlantic and Great Lakes beaches had 1,280 closing and advisory days in 2006, a 55 percent increase from 827 days in 2005.

About two-thirds of New York's closing and advisory days were preemptive rain advisories that are issued after rainfall, which carries pollution from land and overflowing sewers into the ocean.

"The city's attempts at containing sewage overflow have been focused on the construction of hugely expensive tanks and other engineering ‘fixes' that alone won't solve the problem," said Larry Levine, an attorney in NRDC's New York office. "By incorporating ‘green' solutions – like more street trees, green roofs, and porous pavement – we can capture stormwater where it falls, instead of letting it overwhelm our sewers, flushing raw sewage directly into our recreational waters."

New York's Suffolk County beaches on Long Island accounted for almost 40 percent of the state's total closures and advisories, more closing and advisory days than any other county in the state.

This is largely due to stormwater runoff that flushes pollution into beachwater during heavy rains, said Chasis.

Nationwide, the number of no-swim days caused by stormwater runoff more than doubled from the year before, the researchers report.

Rainstorms often cause large amounts of pollution to flow to the beach, overwhelming aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems.

At the same time, sprawling urban development proves too much for wetlands and other natural barriers such as dunes and beach grass, which can help filter hazardous pollutants.

"A summer rainstorm should not have to mean that endless amounts of pollution are washed down to the beach, or that sewers will overflow. We can fix leaky pipes; we can require costal developers to maintain vegetation to absorb rain. The solutions are out there," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's water program.

This year's report takes a close look at the nation's highest risk beaches – those that are either very popular, very close to pollution sources, or both.

Of those, beaches in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota ranked the worst for failing to meet national health standards.

Gulls on Venice Beach in San Mateo County, California (Photo credit unknown)
In California, Venice State Beach north of Half Moon Bay and Avalon Beach on Santa Catalina Island were found to be the two dirtiest beaches. Venice Beach failed to meet public health standards in 57 percent of the water samples, and 53 percent of samples from Avalon Beach violated standards.

"Families shouldn't be worried about keeping the kids out of the water so they don't get sick," said David Beckman, a senior attorney with NRDC and the director of its California Coastal Water Quality Program. "But too often, unfortunately, that's the case."

Nationally, sewage spills and overflows caused 1,301 beach closing and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005.

Elevated bacteria levels from miscellaneous sources, such as boat discharges or wildlife, accounted for 410 closing and advisory days, an increase of 77 days from 2005. In addition, more than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution.

"Every time we close a beach we are not only hindering our local economy we are also diminishing our quality of life," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "We live near the water so that we can enjoy access to the waterways and engage in activities that enrich our lives, including swimming, shell fishing and spending time at the beach with our family and friends. Safe, clean beaches enhance our lives and protecting them needs to be a political priority as it is a public priority."

On the positive side, the NRDC named some beaches "Beach Buddies" when they violated public health standards less than 10 percent of the time. At these cleaner beaches officials monitored beach water quality regularly and took steps to reduce pollution.

Recognized as Beach Buddies are Kure Beach and Kill Devil HillsBeach in North Carolina; Sister Bay Beach and North Beach in Wisconsin; Laguna Beach in California; Grand Haven City Beach and Grand Haven State Park beaches in Michigan; and in Maine, Mother's, Middle, Cape Neddick, Short Sands, and York Harbor beaches.

For the first time this year the NRDC is recognizing an individual as a Beach Hero.

Dr. Carl Berg (Photo courtesy Richard Shirley)
Dr. Carl Berg of Hawaii, a marine ecologist and water quality champion, was nominated as a Beach Buddy by the staff of the Hawaii Department of Health for his work with the Hanalei Heritage River organization and the Hanalei Watershed Hui on the island of Kauai.

Dr. Berg worked to set up monitoring programs for the beaches, rivers and streams of Hanalei Bay on Kauai's north shore. He works to protect them by replacing cesspools on beach parks and on private land along the river. He helps farmers to reduce sediment discharge and develop best practices to protect the upper watershed.

NRDC public health and water experts warn that current beach water quality standards are 20 years old and obsolete monitoring methods and outdated science leave beachgoers vulnerable to waterborne illnesses.

An NRDC lawsuit against the EPA on these grounds filed last year has resulted in a ruling that the EPA violated the federal BEACH Act. The court is setting a schedule for the agency to come into compliance.

In July, the EPA said it is working to provide beach managers and local health officials with a water quality test that yields results in three hours, rather than the current 24 hour method.

Crowded beach on the New Jersey shore near Beachwood (Photo courtesy New Egypt Soccer Club)
Using water samples collected by New Jersey's Monmouth and Ocean County Health Departments this summer, and partnering with the state Department of Environmental Protection, EPA scientists are conducting comparisons of the two tests used to detect disease causing bacteria.

Results of the 10 week pilot project will be published and shared with beach communities in New Jersey and New York to help refine the testing protocols and determine their effectiveness.

"Quicker tests will allow beach managers to make dramatically faster decisions about the safety of beach waters," said Alan Steinberg, EPA regional administrator for New York and New Jersey. "EPA is investing in sound science and new technology to protect public health and our coastal waters."

"Each summer, beach goers flock to the Jersey Shore expecting the water to be clean and safe," said New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson. "Our Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program - a combined state, federal and local water quality monitoring network - is already recognized as one of the best in the nation. Same-day monitoring has the potential to make the system even more protective of public health."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.