Reports of Beach Pollution On The Rise
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2002 (ENS) - Beach closures and water quality advisories increased by 19 percent in 2001 over the previous year, finds an annual beach report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The conservation group says some city and regional authorities are trying to stem the flow of pollution to beaches, but more needs to be done locally and nationally to address the pollution problem.
The annual trend of increasing closures and advisories is partly due to the fact that more municipalities are monitoring their beaches on a regular basis, says the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in its 12th annual report. Increased monitoring offers a more comprehensive picture of the health of the nation's beaches, highlighting successes and ongoing problems.
"Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" reports there were at least 13,410 closures and advisories at ocean and freshwater beaches in 2001, compared to at least 11,270 in 2000.
Pollution from sewage spills and urban runoff continues to contaminate many beaches with disease causing bacteria and other pathogens, the report finds. High bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 87 percent of the closures and advisories in 2001.
Many local authorities admit that they do not know the sources of pollution causing or contributing to more than half of the closures and advisories issued, the report notes.
"The reporting agencies don't know the source of pollution because, in many cases, no one is systematically tracking it down and attempting to do anything about it," said Sarah Chasis, an NRDC senior attorney and director of the organization's water and coastal program. "Identifying the source of the problem is a critical step to improving beach water quality. It's important not only to regularly monitor beaches and notify the public of contamination, but also to identify and control the pollution sources."
Since 1990, when the NRDC issued its first beach report, some coastal states have improved their monitoring, testing and notification practices. Twelve states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs, including Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.
In addition, California, Massachusetts and Florida have passed beach bills that mandate more regular beach monitoring and public notification.
However, there is still no uniform and regular monitoring across the nation, leaving some beachgoers unaware about water quality at their favorite beaches. Oregon, for example, does not regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety.
Private groups monitor a few beaches in Louisiana, but there is no statewide monitoring program. Washington state also has no formal statewide monitoring program and leaves it to individual communities to voluntarily monitor their local beaches.
The standards authorities use for testing water quality, particularly for detecting bacteria and other pathogens, also vary across the country. Of 138 agencies responsible for at least one marine or estuarine beach, only 38 agencies in seven states and Guam have adopted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recommended bacteria standards.
Of 124 agencies responsible for at least one freshwater beach, 29 agencies in 11 states and Guam have adopted the EPA's recommended freshwater standards.
States and municipalities are also inconsistent regarding the publishing of closings and advisories, and in notifying the public when there is a pollution problem. For example, some states that regularly tests water quality at their beaches may not close a beach when a health standard is exceeded.
A national law passed in 2000, the BEACH Act, encourages states to establish monitoring programs for beachwater quality and promptly warn the public if harmful bacteria levels exceed health standards. Under the law, states have to meet EPA water quality standards to receive federal funding for their beach monitoring and public notification programs.
The law also requires all coastal states to adopt, by 2004, EPA's health standards for beach water quality or standards that are equally protective of public health. Although the EPA has not issued final guidelines for implementing the BEACH Act, the NRDC says it is concerned that the monitoring provisions and recommended standards will not be strong enough.
Where local authorities reported the cause of closures and advisories, the most frequent contaminant was stormwater runoff, which caused more than 3,715 closures or advisories last year. In response to an NRDC consent decree, the EPA is now required to set minimum technology standards for controlling stormwater runoff from construction and development.
But last month, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gutted the EPA's proposed standards, charging that they would prove too expensive.
"After OMB's handiwork, EPA's proposal now violates the law and would allow stormwater to further degrade our rivers, lakes and coastal waters," says Nancy Stoner, director of the NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Stormwater is the largest identified source of coastal water pollution in the country."
Another leading cause of beach water closures is bacteria laden raw sewage discharges from combined and sanitary sewers. For more than a year, the EPA has delayed issuing proposed regulations that would minimize raw sewage discharges and notify the public not to swim in sewage contaminated waters.
To help beachgoers know where the cleanest, safest beaches can be found, the NRDC awards an annual Beach Buddy award. This year, the group strengthened its criteria for the award.
The award still requires communities to monitor beach water regularly, close beaches or notify the public when standards are exceeded, and use the EPA's health standards. Now the NRDC is also recognizing authorities that have taken steps to reduce beach pollution over the previous year, by improving sewage or stormwater treatment, or undertaking reforms that will result in major beach water improvements in the near future.
This year, the NRDC's Beach Buddies include: Branford, Connecticut; Key West, Florida; Salem, Massachusetts; and the Los Angeles County and San Diego County regional water quality boards.
"We felt it was time to take the Beach Buddy award a step further by singling out those authorities that are taking steps to pinpoint the source of pollution and reduce it," said report author Mark Dorfman. "It's by no means a comprehensive list and we expect that there are other good examples out there."
NRDC also released its list of Beach Bums - those communities that do not monitor beach water for swimmer safety, do not regularly notify the public if health standards are exceeded, do not use EPA's recommended health standards, and have known pollution sources affecting their beaches. The list includes two states - Louisiana and Oregon - that have no regular monitoring or public notification programs.
A list of 70 individual community "Beach Bums," along with the complete annual report, are available on NRDC's Web site at: http:www.nrdc.org
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