High Number of Polluted U.S. Beach Days Motivates
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years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and outdated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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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.