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Pollution Prompts Beach Closings to Double Along New York and New Jersey Coasts
Region is Home to Nation’s Largest Percentage Jump in Beach Closings, Says New Report
NEW YORK (August 7, 2007) – Beach closings and warnings due to pollution nearly doubled along New York and New Jersey coastlines, according to the 17th annual beach water quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” tallied over one thousand closing and health advisory days along New York’s and New Jersey’s Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound coastlines in 2006, leading to a 96 percent jump from the year before. Connecticut’s closing and advisory days also saw an increase, climbing 12 percent from 2005.
“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. We need to stop this pollution at its source instead of allowing it to consistently cut short family trips to the beach every summer season.”
New York State beaches (including those along the Great Lakes) had 1,280 closing and advisory days in 2006, a 55 percent increase from 827 days in 2005. Approximately two-thirds (67 percent) of these closing and advisory days were preemptive rain advisories that are issued after rainfall, which carries pollution from land and overflowing sewers into the ocean. Beachwater quality tests showing unhealthy bacteria levels accounted for 29 percent of the closings and advisories. The principal known sources of beachwater contamination are polluted stormwater and sewage.
Suffolk County beaches 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. Suffolk County also had a number of beaches that exceeded safe bacteria levels nearly one out of every four times they were tested.
“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.”
Most of New York City’s beach closings and advisories were pre-emptive. These occur when, for example, the city’s sewer system discharges raw sewage directly into the area’s waterways. As little as just one-fifth of an inch of rainfall could trigger these advisories and closings. The majority of the city’s sewers were designed long ago to collect both sewage and storm runoff but today about 27 billion gallons of this bacteria-laden mix overflow annually into the waters around the city. When the city preemptively issues a beach health advisory, it posts a notice onsite. However, when beachwater samples exceed public health standards for bacteria, the city does not automatically require beaches to close or even issue a health advisory.
“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 Jersey beaches had 134 closing and advisory days in 2006, a 70 percent rise from 79 in 2005. Preemptive closings due to rain accounted for 65 percent of the total, and the remaining 35 percent were due water sampling results that showed unsafe levels of bacteria. Stormwater is the principal source of pollution at New Jersey beaches. New Jersey is also home this year to a Beach Bum – one of the country’s most polluted beaches. NRDC named Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County, NJ a Beach Bum because it failed to meet health standards 60 percent of the time it was tested.
New Jersey requires all beachwater samples that show high bacteria levels to be retested before taking any protective action. It takes roughly 48 hours to announce a beach closure after its water has been contaminated. However, for the first time this summer, New Jersey is conducting a rapid-testing pilot program, which, if proven effective, could greatly improve testing procedures and shorten response times in New Jersey and around the country.
Connecticut beaches had a 12 percent increase in closings and advisories in 2006, totaling 224 days. Preemptive closures due to rainfall accounted for 78 percent of the closing and advisory days, while beachwater samples showing high bacteria levels accounted for 18 percent. Stormwater run-off is to blame for at least 66 percent of the high bacteria levels at Connecticut’s beaches.
Nationwide, the report tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. Sewage spills and overflows caused 1,301 beach closing and advisory days, an increase of 402 days from 2005. More than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution.
Aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm drainage systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution in the tri-state region and across the nation. The problem was compounded in 2006 by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure. The authors also say that careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is devouring wetlands and other natural buffers, such as dunes and beach grass, that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution.
“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 plant trees and grass to absorb rain. The solutions are out there,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s Clean Water Project.
Not only are the beaches polluted, the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to NRDC public health and water experts. The current beach water 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. Risks include gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the risks are particularly great.
In addition to compiling data on 3,500 U.S. beaches, the report this year takes an especially close look at the nation’s highest risk beaches – those that are either very popular, very close to pollution sources, or both. Of those highest risk beaches, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota ranked the worst for failing to meet national health standards. This new area of focus is the result of a peer review process NRDC undertook with five professionals from local and state health agencies, academia, and the research community. Click here for the full report.
Beach Buddies and Beach Bums
Based on the report’s findings, NRDC today announced the best and worst beaches for protecting beachgoers from contaminated water. This year there are 13 Beach Buddies and six Beach Bums, and for the first time, a Beach Hero.
Beach Buddies: Monitored beach water quality regularly, violated public health standards less than 10 percent of the time, and took significant steps to reduce pollution:
- North Carolina: Kure Beach and Kill Devil Hills beach
- Wisconsin: Sister Bay Beach and North Beach
- California: Laguna Beach
- Hawaii: Dr. Carl Berg
- Michigan: Grand Haven City Beach and Grand Haven State Park beaches
- Maine: Libby Cove, Mother’s, Middle, Cape Neddick, Short Sands and York Harbor beaches
For the first time this year NRDC is recognizing an individual as a Beach Hero. Dr. Carl Berg of Hawaii, a marine ecologist and long-time 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. Dr. Berg worked to set up monitoring programs for the beaches, rivers and streams of Hanalei Bay and to protect them by replacing cesspools on beach parks and on private land along the river, working with farmers to reduce sediment discharge, and developing best practices to protect the upper watershed.
Beach Bums: Violated public health standards 51 percent or more of the time samples were taken:
- California: Avalon Beach (north of Green Pier) (53 percent) and Venice State Beach (57 percent)
- Maryland: Hacks Point (60 percent) and Bay Country Campground and Beach (56 percent)
- New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West (60 percent)
- Illinois: Jackson Park Beach (54 percent)
NRDC is also offering beachgoers an opportunity to discuss their personal Beach Bums and Beach Buddies. To post a comment, visit NRDC's new Your Oceans website, where you also will find fun summer tips for having a safe and healthy time at the beach this summer season.
About the 2007 Beach Protection Act
In May, the Beach Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 2537/S. 1506) was introduced in the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) of 2000. If passed, the Act will mandate the use of rapid testing methods to detect beach water contamination in two hours or less so that beachgoers can be notified of public health risks promptly. The Act will also increase the amount of grant money available for states’ testing programs from $30 million to $60 million annually through 2012, and expand the uses of grant funds to include source tracking and pollution prevention. Sponsors of this bill include three members of Congress from the tri-state region: Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and Congressman Tim Bishop (D-NY).
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.