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High Number of Polluted U.S. Beach Days Motivates Lawsuit

WASHINGTON, DC, August 3, 2006 (ENS) - High levels of bacterial contamination at an increasing number of U.S. beaches has prompted the Natural Resources Defense Council to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to modernize the health standards as ordered by Congress six years ago.

The lawsuit was announced today in conjunction with the release of the environmental group's annual beachwater sampling report, "Testing the Waters."

The report shows that the number of closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches topped 20,000 in 2005 - the most since NRDC began tracking the problem in 1990.

"These problems are preventable," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "It would be a lot safer to swim if municipalities used soil and vegetation to capture and filter stormwater at its source, and upgraded their aging sewer systems."

Beach warnings like this one in Rhode Island are increasing across the United States. (Photo by Andrea Kecskes courtesy URI OMP)

In most of the more than 20,000 cases documented, beachwater was contaminated with bacteria, and beachgoers were either swimming in it or banned from swimming because of the health risks.

Overall, eight percent of the beachwater samples taken nationwide violated health standards.

Mississippi (22 percent) and Louisiana (18 percent) had the highest percentage of exceedances - before Hurricane Katrina, while New Hampshire (one percent) and Delaware (less than one percent) had the fewest, the NRDC report shows.

In 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), which required the EPA to revise the current health standards by October 2005. The federal agency missed the deadline, and now says it will not be able to finish updating the standards until 2011.

NRDC argues that the current beachwater quality standards are 20 years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and outdated science that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses.

"A day at the beach should not turn into a night in the bathroom, or worse, in the hospital," said Stoner. "There have been significant advances over the last two decades that we should be using to protect beachgoers, but the EPA is dragging its feet in implementing them."

Risks include gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

"The pollution that fouls our beaches comes from sewers, septic systems, and stormwater runoff from roads and buildings," said Stoner. "Poorly planned development on our coasts has paved over wetlands and other vegetation that soaked up and filtered polluted stormwater.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, NACWA, said today that its public clean water agency members "take seriously" their obligation to meet the stringent requirements of the Clean Water Act, "even as Congress continues to cut funding necessary to build and maintain this critical infrastructure."

Miami Beach, Florida at spring break 2006. Until 2000 Florida did not require beachwater monitoring. Today monitoring is required at nine locations including Miami Beach, where today's pollution rating is "good." (Photo courtesy Ravi Kochhar)

Ken Kirk, NACWA executive director, said his organization works closely with the NRDC to ensure sound wet weather policies. “NACWA and NRDC also both support the need for a Clean Water Trust Fund," Kirk said. "We will continue to work with nongovernmental organizations, as well as EPA, to fulfill the critical objectives of the Clean Water Act.”

NACWA represents nearly 300 of the nation’s publicly owned wastewater treatment works, collectively treating and reclaiming over 18 billion gallons of wastewater daily across the United States.

Both the NRDC and NACWA acknowlege that there are many potential contributors to beach contamination, and it is often difficult to pinpoint the sources of this pollution.

Pollution makes its way to beaches from runoff from nonpoint sources such as agriculture, and contaminated stormwater that collects grease, chemicals and bacteria from pet waste as it runs off urban streets and parking lots. Much of the rise in "no swimming days" was due to heavy rainfall, increased monitoring, more development in coastal areas and unaddressed sources of beachwater pollution, the NRDC said.

Unlike nonpoint sources of pollution, public clean water agencies are strictly regulated under the Clean Water Act and are dedicated to carrying out the fishable, swimmable objectives in that law. Publicly owned treatment works are not the cause of pollution but the primary defense against it, Kirk says.

NACWA has long supported improvements in monitoring, and Kirk points out that the increasing number of beach closures shows the improved efficiency of the monitoring regimen.

The NRDC's Testing the Waters report shows that the states with the biggest jumps in closing and advisory days compared with 2004 were Pennsylvania (1,200 percent), Washington (200 percent), Louisiana (165 percent before Hurricane Katrina), Mississippi (141 percent before Katrina), Indiana (115 percent) and Hawaii (91 percent).

Nationally the number of polluted beach days jumped five percent, from 19,950 days in 2004 to 20,397 days in 2005.

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