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NRDC Sues EPA for Failing to Update Obsolete Water Quality Standards

CHICAGO (August 3, 2006) -- Beach closings and warnings due to bacterial contamination are on the rise at Chicago metro beaches, according to an annual report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report tallied 316 closing and health advisory days at the city's 23 monitored Lake Michigan beaches in 2005, a 139 percent jump from the 132 the year before.

"Chicagoans looking to take a dip in Lake Michigan wind up swimming in human and animal waste," said Laurel O'Sullivan, NRDC's Great Lakes campaign coordinator. "Local authorities need to do more to protect beachgoers from waterborne disease." O'Sullivan spoke this morning at a press conference at the Shedd Aquarium, which is a sponsor of the Great Lakes Forever campaign.

Nationally, the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches topped 20,000 in 2005 -- the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 16 years ago -- confirming that our nation's beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution. (Read the report, Testing the Waters.)

This year's report includes new information that provides a more alarming picture of the problem. For the first time, NRDC evaluated beachwater quality nationwide and found 200 beaches in two dozen states whose beachwater samples violated the standards at least 25 percent of the time. In most cases, beachwater was contaminated with bacteria, and beachgoers were either swimming in it or banned from swimming because of the health risks. Overall, 8 percent of the beachwater samples taken nationwide violated health standards, while 14 percent of the samples taken at Illinois beaches exceeded the standards.

Current beachwater health standards, however, do not adequately protect the public and need to be updated, according to NRDC. Today the organization announced it is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to modernize the standards as ordered by Congress six years ago.

"A day at the beach should not turn into a night in the bathroom, or worse, in the hospital," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "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."

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

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. 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 and stormwater runoff from roads and buildings," said Max Muller of Environment Illinois. "Poorly planned development on our coasts has paved over wetlands and other vegetation that soaked up and filtered polluted stormwater. Fortunately we now have ways to prevent these problems."

Chicago has been working aggressively to reduce stormwater pollution for a number of years, said O'Sullivan. "Chicago is a leader in implementing and introducing new methods and techniques developers can use to absorb stormwater -- things like growing vegetation on roofs," she said. "We have to be smarter about how we build near our coasts, including our third coast, the Great Lakes." (Click here for more information on cleaning up stormwater pollution.)

Even with Chicago's leadership, people swimming in Lake Michigan are still getting sick from contaminated water. Surveys conducted in 2002 and 2003 by the Environmental Protection Agency found that 11 percent of swimmers who submerged their heads became sick with gastrointestinal illnesses and 17 percent contracted respiratory illnesses.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

NRDC's report found 8 percent of the beachwater samples taken nationwide in 2005 exceeded federal health standards. Mississippi (22 percent) and Louisiana (18 percent) had the highest percentage of exceedances (before Hurricane Katrina) while New Hampshire (1 percent) and Delaware (less than 1 percent) had the fewest.

NRDC today announced the cleanest and dirtiest beaches based on the percentage of beachwater samples that violated federal public health standards. This year there are 32 Beach Buddies and 22 Beach Bums. (For more details about each beach, click here.)

One Illinois beach, North Point Marina, was named a Beach Bum. The water there failed to meet health standards 56 percent of the time samples were taken. Meanwhile, two nearby Indiana beaches -- Kemil Beach at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Lakeview Beach -- were named Beach Buddies. These two Porter County beaches are on opposite sides of Derby Ditch watershed, one of the most bacteria-contaminated streams discharging into Lake Michigan from northwest Indiana. With the help of Indiana University's Great Marsh Restoration Project, they have significantly reduced E. coli contamination.

Beach Buddies: NRDC's 32 Beach Buddies -- which monitored beachwater quality regularly, had no violations of federal public health standards, and took significant steps to reduce pollution -- are:

  • Connecticut: Walnut Beach in Milford. Milford was a Beach Buddy in 2003.

  • Florida: Ten beaches in Brevard County: Cocoa Beach-Minuteman Causeway, Cocoa Beach Pier, Indialantic Boardwalk (now James H. Nance Park), Jetty Park, Paradise Beach (now Howard E. Futch Memorial Park), Patrick Air Force Base North, Pelican Beach Park, Playalinda Beach (at Canaveral National Seashore), Sebastian Inlet North, and Spessard Holland Beach Park North. Brevard County had 34 Beach Bums in 2002.

  • Georgia: Two beaches on Tybee Island: Middle Beach and North Beach.

  • Indiana: Two beaches in Porter County: Kemil Beach (at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) and Lakeview Beach.

  • Maine: Pemaquid Beach in Bristol.

  • Michigan: Nine beaches in St. Clair County: Burtchville Township Park, Chrysler Park Beach, Conger-Lighthouse Beach, Holland Road Beach, Lakeport State Campground, Lakeport State Park, Lakeside Beach, Marine City Beach, and Marine City Diving Area.

  • Wisconsin: Seven beaches in Door County: Gislason Beach, Haines Park Beach, Percy Johnson Memorial Park Beach, Rock Island State Park Beach, Sand Dune Beach, School House Beach, and Whitefish Bay Boat Launch Beach. Door County was a Beach Buddy in 2005.

Beach Bums: NRDC's 22 Beach Bums -- which violated federal public health standards at least 50 percent of the time samples were taken -- are:

  • California: Nine beaches. One beach in Los Angeles County: Will Rogers State Beach (Santa Monica Canyon). Six beaches in Orange County: Aliso Beach, Crystal Cove State Park, Doheny State Beach, Newport Bay (Santa Ana Delhi), Newport Beach (Buck Gully), and Salt Creek Beach Park. One beach in San Diego County: Imperial Beach. And one beach in Ventura County: Rincon Creek.

  • Florida : Shired Island in Dixie County.

  • Georgia: Kings Ferry in Chatham County.

  • Illinois: North Point Marina in Lake County.

  • Louisiana: Bogue Falaya Park in Covington.

  • Maryland: Three beaches in Rock Hall: Bay Country Campground and Beach, Ferry Park, and Rock Hall Beach.

  • Massachusetts : Cockle Cove Creek in Chatham and Sandy Beach in Danvers.

  • Michigan: Singing Bridge Beach in Arenac County.

  • Minnesota: Clyde Avenue Boat Landing Beach in West Duluth.

  • Rhode Island: Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett. Scarborough State Beach was a Beach Buddy in 2005.

  • South Carolina: Pirateland-Lakewood Campground in Myrtle Beach.

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 1.2 million members and online activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Summary of Findings
Guide to Finding Clean Beaches
Report: Testing the Waters 2006
National Press Release
Local/Regional Releases:
California | Chicago | Florida | L.A. | N.Y.

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