U.S. EPA Illegally Failed to Update Safe Beachwater Standards

LOS ANGELES, California, March 29, 2007 (ENS) - Failure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update public health standards for beachwater quality violates the law, according to the ruling of a federal judge issued in California District Court in Los Angeles. Beachwater can be contaminated with viruses and bacteria from sewage and stormwater overflows.

The March 21 decision by Judge Philip Gutierrez is the result of a lawsuit filed last August by the national environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

"EPAís delays in setting new standards are unacceptable," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "The agency must act quickly now to protect the millions of people who run the risk of getting sick from contaminated beachwater every year."


Aliso Creek, which flows to the ocean in San Diego, California, is contaminated due to residential and commercial use of fertilizers and pesticides, and pet and waterfowl waste. (Photo courtesy Orange County)
NRDC filed suit after the EPA missed the Congressionally mandated deadline of October 10, 2005 to revise outdated health standards for beachwater quality.

The agency now claims it will not be able to finish updating the standards until at least 2011, although it is required to do so by the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000, known as the BEACH Act.

Judge Gutierrez wrote, the BEACH Act "imposes a non-discretionary duty that EPA was obligated, but failed, to abide by."

"The EPA admits as much," Gutierrez wrote.

The EPA blames the delay on the studies that it must conduct before proposing the standards, arguing that studying bacteria and other pathogens is "time-consuming, resource intensive, controversial and technically complicated."

The agency says the delay is due, in part, to Hurricane Katrina and other severe weather conditions that meant a study at a beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, could not be completed.

The EPA stated in court documents that four other studies on the Great Lakes led the agency to conclude in 2006 that it needed to expand or revise future studies.

In his ruling, Judge Gutierrez found that the EPA was required to meet the deadline regardless of whether or not it had a good reason for the delay.

An EPA representative said the agency will "respect the judge's ruling."

Further proceedings in the lawsuit will now address the appropriate remedy for the EPAís violation. A hearing is scheduled Monday in Los Angeles to decide how long the agency will have to comply with the law.


Coney Island Beach is a popular destination for New York City residents and tourists. (Photo by R. Guskind courtesy City of New York)
Current beachwater quality standards, which were set in 1986, use outdated monitoring standards and testing methods that do not provide timely or comprehensive information to beachgoers about their risk of getting waterborne illnesses.

The NRDC estimates that seven million Americans are sickened by contaminated recreational and drinking water every year.

In 2005, the environmental group tallied 2,213 closing and health advisory days for Los Angeles County beaches, the highest number since statewide testing standards began in 1999.

That means the water at county beaches often is dirty enough to cause diseases including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis and other health problems, according to the NRDC.

Nationwide, the number of closings and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches topped 20,000 in 2005 - the most since the NRDC began tracking the closures.

The Courtís order finding EPA in violation of the law is online at: http://docs.nrdc.org/water/wat_07032301A.pdf.