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Press contact: Laurel O'Sullivan, NRDC, 847-401-9672 or 847-475-6956; or Melanie Napoleon, Shedd Aquarium, 312-692-1472
If you are not a member of the press, please write to us at nrdcinfo@nrdc.org or see our contact page.


Monitoring Uncovers Dangerous Bacteria in More Places, More Often; Better Pollution Prevention Needed to Get Swimmers Back in the Water

CHICAGO (July 28, 2005) -- Beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination are on the rise at Illinois Lake Michigan beaches, according to an annual report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report tallied 790 closing days in 2004, about double the number of closings (391) the previous year. All of last year's closing days were prompted by unsafe levels of bacteria in the water, indicating the presence of human or animal waste.

"Instead of closing our beaches, let's clean up the water," said Laurel O'Sullivan, NRDC's Great Lakes campaign coordinator. "Authorities have gotten better at finding problems. Now they need to identify the source of the pollution, whether it's leaky sewage systems or contaminated runoff. Eighty-three percent of Great Lakes beach closings and 100 percent of Illinois beach closings were caused by unidentified sources of pollution."

O'Sullivan spoke this morning at a press conference at the Shedd Aquarium, which in early June announced a new initiative to protect the Great Lakes. She was joined on the podium by Melanie Napoleon, the manager of Shedd's Great Lakes Awareness Campaign; Joel Brammeier, habitat coordinator of the Alliance for the Great Lakes; and Rebecca Stanfield, environmental program director for the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

Nationally, NRDC's report found nearly 20,000 closing and advisory days in 2004. That's the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 15 years ago. One reason, the group says, is that improved monitoring spurred by previous reports is now uncovering the true extent of the pollution problem.

The report, "Testing the Waters," which covers ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches, is available online here. (Another national organization, Surfrider Foundation, released its 2005 "State of the Beach" report today, which provides information on beach ecology, access, erosion and water quality, including material from NRDC's report and other sources. The report is available here.)

Besides Illinois, states with the biggest jump in closing and advisory days compared with 2003 were Texas (1,074 percent), Washington (700 percent), Maryland (405 percent), Minnesota (333 percent), Michigan (174 percent); and New York (117 percent). Hawaii went from no closing or advisory days in 2003 to 1,169 in 2004; Maine went from none in 2003 to 56 in 2004. Nationally, the number jumped 9 percent, from 18,224 days in 2003 to 19,950 days in 2004.

"This is a nationwide problem that demands a nationwide solution," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "We need stronger enforcement for those who aren't doing their share, and we need more federal help for local communities to control runoff and update their aging sewage systems. Just this week, Congress cut the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the main federal support for water infrastructure. We're going backward." (For more information on the state revolving fund's status, click here.)

All of the closing and advisory days at Illinois Lake Michigan beaches were triggered by dangerously high bacteria levels. The main culprits are improperly treated sewage and bacteria-contaminated stormwater runoff. The bacteria can cause a wide range of illnesses, including gastroenteritis; dysentery; hepatitis; ear, nose and throat problems; and respiratory ailments. Consequences are worse for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

This year, for the first time, NRDC analyzed data that show how often beaches in the Great Lakes violate bacteria standards designed to protect public health. Most Great Lakes beaches violate public health standards rarely, if at all, including most beaches in Michigan, but a small number violates standards frequently, including beaches in six Wisconsin counties and two Ohio counties that violated standards for 20 percent or more of the samples taken.

Polluted beachwater not only poses a threat to public health, it can hurt local businesses. In Illinois, coastal tourism generated $23 billion and 298,670 jobs in 2003, according to the state's commerce department. But Illinois "beachanomics" would be even more robust if communities were not forced to close their beaches because of pollution. One study cited in NRDC's report estimated that closing a beach on Lake Michigan could result in economic losses of as much as $37,000 per day.

The increase in closings and advisories at Illinois Lake Michigan beaches occurred primarily at beaches in Cook Country. The number of beaches monitored and the frequency of monitoring remained the same from 2003 to 2004 in that county, which suggests that beachwater pollution problems are getting worse.

"The continual jump in Great Lakes beach closings is evidence we need Congress, the states and cities to invest in stopping sewage overflows and reducing polluted runoff under the Great Lakes restoration plan," said the Alliances' Brammeier.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

NRDC's report identifies the best and worst performers when it comes to protecting beachgoers from contaminated water. NRDC named its annual Beach Buddies-jurisdictions that monitor beachwater quality regularly, close beaches or notify the public when at least one of EPA's health standards is exceeded, and take significant steps to reduce pollution. This year's Beach Buddies are:

  • Door County, Wisconsin (near Green Bay), which is being recognized for its multifaceted program to identify the sources polluting its Lake Michigan beaches;

  • the city of Los Angeles; and

  • Scarborough State Beach, Rhode Island (between Narragansett and Point Judith).

The annual list of Beach Bums-communities that do not monitor pollution and warn the public when beachwater is unsafe, or fail to control sources of pollution-include:

  • Van Buren County, Michigan (west of Kalamazoo), which fails to monitor all of its Lake Michigan beaches;

  • Los Angeles County and 44 cities in the county, including Beverly Hills, Claremont, Pomona and Whittier (click here for the complete list); and

  • Atlantic Beach, North Carolina (south of Morehead City).
NRDC Recommendations

The report calls on Congress to fully fund the BEACH Act and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the principal source of federal support for water infrastructure. The report also urges the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten controls on sewer overflows and stormwater discharges, ensure that states and localities monitor water quality and notify the public when it does not meet bacterial standards, and set standards to protect the public from waterborne pathogens. A special Great Lakes supplement to the report found that most Great Lakes states do not adequately notify the public when there is a sewage overflow.

"All too often families heading to Great Lakes beaches face a nasty public health risk," said Illinois PIRG's Stanfield. "Bacteria, viruses and other pathogens in sewage are being dumped into local waterways. Illinois EPA is not adequately warning the public when it's not safe to go into the water."

The report also calls on Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to provide $7.5 billion in federal grants to Great Lakes states to eliminate discharges of inadequately treated sewage, as recommended by the Great Lakes Regional Collaborative. In addition, NRDC's report advocates that EPA provide $10 million to its Great Lakes office to tighten controls on sewer overflows and stormwater discharges, prod states and localities monitor to water quality, and ensure that the public is notified when bacterial standards are not met.

NRDC further recommends that state and local governments around the country adopt rigorous monitoring and beach closure programs, identify pollution sources, and get to work cleaning them up. In addition, authorities should issue advisories when heavy rainfall causes bacteria levels to jump, and when sewer overflows or other similar problems jeopardize beachwater safety.

Citizens also can do a number of things to improve beachwater quality, including capturing runoff from roofs and driveways; maintaining septic systems; picking up pet waste; avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides on lawns and gardens; and supporting legislation and funding to keep beachwater clean, fix aging sewer systems, and protect wetlands and coastal vegetation.

"We look forward to bringing our strengths to bear to help protect Great Lakes beaches," said the Shedd's Napoleon. "Beaches are real treasures that make a difference in our own community and every Great Lakes community. We want to lend our voice to let people know what they can do to help protect them."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and online activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Shedd Aquarium, which is supported by the people of Chicago and the state of Illinois, is an accredited member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. For more information, go to greatlakesforever.org.

The 35-year-old Alliance for the Great Lakes mobilizes regional efforts to protect and clean up the Great Lakes. It has offices in Chicago and Grand Haven, Michigan.

Illinois PIRG is a non-profit, nonpartisan consumer and environmental advocacy group with 20,000 members in Illinois.

Related NRDC Pages, English
Summary of Findings
Guide to Finding Clean Beaches
Report: Testing the Waters 2005
National Press Release
Local/Regional Releases:
California | Chicago | Florida | L.A. | N.Y.

Página Relacionadas de NRDC, En Español
Sumario de Hallazgos
Preguntas Frecuentes
Guía para Encontrar Playas Limpias
Reporte: Examinando las Aguas 2005 (Resumen Ejecutive)
Comunicado de Prensa
Comunicados de Prensa para
California | Chicago | Florida | L.A. | N.Y.

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