Adding Ignorance to Injury: Administration Proposes to Cut Funding for Beach Pollution Programs


President Obama released his budget proposal yesterday, and several of my colleagues are noting some highlights and lowlights in the package.  I noticed one that belongs solidly in the latter category.

The detailed document summarizing the plans for spending by EPA reveals that President Obama would eliminate an important program that provides financial grants to coastal and Great Lakes states to “develop and implement programs to inform the public about the risk of exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in the water at the nation’s beaches.” 

States use these funds to help pay to monitor water quality – specifically, whether there are bacteria in the water indicating the presence of pathogens that can make people sick – and to make decisions and notify the public about closing beaches or warning people about the dangers of swimming.  In other words, it’s a simple investment in public health. 

So, let’s take a look at the administration’s explanation of its decision to cut this health program, and see whether it holds up:

In this difficult financial climate, the Agency will eliminate the Beaches Grant Program with a reduction of $9.9 million in FY 2013. While beach monitoring continues to be important, well-understood guidelines are in place, and state and local government programs have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support.

That is very hard to square with EPA’s statement just two weeks ago – announcing the distribution of the current fiscal year’s grants:  

The grants will help local authorities monitor beach water quality and notify the public of conditions that may be unsafe for swimming.  This is the 12th year that EPA is providing beach grant funds, bringing the total amount EPA has made available to nearly $111 million.  As a result, the number of monitored beaches has more than tripled to more than 3,600 in 2010.

Because this is a new proposal, we’re still analyzing the possible consequences of adopting it, but one potential ramification is that states might stop collecting and providing information about water quality to EPA – even though these are critical data in which the public is keenly interested, as NRDC observes every year when we produce our “Testing the Waters” report.   States are obligated to have beach monitoring and notification programs meeting certain minimum criteria, but those obligations are conditions of receiving the federal grants that President Obama would zero out.

Kiran at beach Aug 09.JPG

Sadly, this announcement comes on the heels of another proposal from the Obama administration that leaves beachgoers insufficiently protected from things like diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomachache caused by bacteria and viruses in beach water.  As my colleague Steve Fleischli pointed out:

A new EPA proposal to address pollution at U.S. beaches allows 1 in 28 people to get sick when they go to the beach.  Imagine a school fieldtrip to the beach – for every large conventional school bus, nearly three kids would be put at risk of getting an illness like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. 

Now imagine if a restaurant was allowed to serve food that would make 1 in 28 people sick.  The public wouldn’t tolerate it.  Yet EPA somehow is considering allowing 1 in 28 swimmers to get sick at the beach.  It’s outrageous and a serious health risk that cannot and should not be ignored.

Today’s budget proposal and the proposed standards for assessing what constitutes an acceptable health risk are a double-whammy for the millions of Americans that visit our coastal and Great Lakes beaches.  If they are adopted, we will have to worry that the beach is using standards that are not strong enough to protect the public health, and also worry that beach managers might lack the resources to know if even those standards are met and communicate the results to the public.