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

NEW YORK CITY (July 28, 2005) -- Beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination are on the rise at beaches in the greater New York City metro area, Long Island and the Jersey shore, according to an annual report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report tallied 1,198 closing and health advisory days in 2004 at New York and New Jersey beaches, nearly twice as many (92 percent) as the 624 the previous year.

"Instead of closing our beaches, let's clean up the water," said Brad Sewell, a senior attorney at NRDC. "Authorities have gotten better at finding problems. Now they need to stop the pollution at its source by reducing raw sewage discharges and cleaning up contaminated runoff."

NRDC was particularly critical of New York City's recent decision to scale back its program to clean up combined sewer overflows. Most of the city's sewer system is combined with stormwater pipes, which overflow directly into waterways during storms. In 2004, New York City's beaches experienced 433 days of closures and advisories. This represented a nearly 300 percent jump from the previous year and nearly 30 percent of New York state's total.

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.)

Ocean and Great Lakes beaches in New York state as a whole were among those that experienced the biggest increase in closing and advisory days compared with 2003. The number of days more than doubled, jumping from 692 in 2003 to 1,503 in 2004 (117 percent). Other states with significant increases were Texas (1,074 percent), Washington (700 percent), Maryland (405 percent), Minnesota (333 percent), Michigan (174 percent) and Illinois (102 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.)

Seventy percent of the closing and advisory days at New York and New Jersey coastal beaches were due to the amount of rainfall, not the results of beachwater sampling. Deciding whether to close a beach or issue a health advisory based on rainfall better protects the public since it usually takes at least 24 hours to get monitoring results. The other 30 percent of closings and advisories were triggered by dangerously high bacteria levels. Swimming in contaminated beachwater 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.

Reasons for the jump in closings and advisories at New York and New Jersey beaches last year include:

  • the continuing failure of most municipalities to identify and clean up stormwater, sewage and other pollution sources;

  • more frequent monitoring, prompted at least in part by earlier NRDC reports; and

  • heavier than average rainfall in some areas, which flushed more pollution into local waterways.
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:

  • the city of Los Angeles;

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

  • Door County, Wisconsin (northeast of Green Bay).

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:

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

  • Van Buren County, Michigan (west of Kalamazoo on Lake Michigan); and

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

"These two groups represent the best and worst in water quality and health safeguards for beachgoers," said Mark Dorfman, the author of the NRDC report. "They are case studies in what, and what not, to do to protect the 180 million Americans who come out to enjoy the beaches each year."

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.

At the state and local level, NRDC recommends governments adopt rigorous monitoring and beach closure programs, identify pollution sources, and get to work cleaning them up. New York City should stop fighting an effort to clean up its combined sewer overflows, and stop trying to weaken water quality standards. 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.

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.

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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