How EPA Could Ruin Your Summer Vacation

More than 180 million people visit coastal and Great Lakes beaches every year, and swimming and surfing are favorite pastimes in the United States. But—as is highlighted in NRDC’s 23rd Annual Testing the Waters Report—closings due to hazardous pollution remain high with 20,120 beach posting and closure days at U.S. beaches in 2012. That’s over 20,000 beach days ruined for the third straight year.

Too many of America’s beaches are sick—and they’re passing on their illnesses to families across the country. It shouldn’t be this way. The Environmental Protection Agency has a duty to ensure that people are protected against illnesses from polluted water. However, under EPA's latest approach to water quality protections at U.S. beaches, more beachgoers could be getting sick than otherwise should.

The Obama Administration has done two things lately that should cause concern for anyone who likes to go to the beach during the summer—or any other time of year for that matter.

First, EPA recently adopted new, weaker water quality provisions for U.S. beaches.  The EPA is responsible for ensuring that recreational waters are safe for people. One element of this responsibility is establishing criteria that are sufficient to protect the public from contaminants in beachwater.  Unfortunately, the agency's new allowable bacteria levels in recreational waters miss a critical opportunity to better protect the public. In fact, in some respects the criteria are even less protective than the 25-year-old standards they replace.

Most egregiously, EPA's criteria fail to protect against exposures to viruses, bacteria, and parasites on any given day. The prior criteria adopted in 1986 included a "single sample maximum," which was not to be exceeded. EPA now allows water quality to exceed the criteria up to 10 percent of the time without triggering a violation. This approach could mask a serious pollution problem and expose families to an unnecessary risk of illness. The criteria also are based on what the EPA has determined is an acceptable gastrointestinal illness risk of 3.6 percent. That is, the agency believes it is acceptable for 36 in 1,000 swimmers—that’s 1 in 28 swimmers—to become ill with gastroenteritis sicknesses such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, from swimming in water that just meets EPA’s water quality criteria. This risk is unacceptably high and is not protective of human health. For these reasons, NRDC and a coalition of local and national groups alerted EPA last week of our intent to sue the agency for failing to live up to the Clean Water Act if these criteria are not fixed and strengthened to put people first.

Second, President Obama’s proposed FY14 budget seeks to eliminate all EPA funding for beach monitoring and notification programs. That’s almost $10 million a year that helps state and local authorities assess the quality of our beaches and warn the public when contamination is high. These monitoring and notification efforts are critical safeguards that help protect millions of beachgoers and swimmers across the nation from waterborne diseases. 

States do not have the financial resources to run these programs entirely on their own, without federal assistance. Though these small grants are less than Congress originally authorized, they represent critical investments in safeguards for our nation's $90 billion coastal tourism economy, which generates nearly 2 million jobs at more than 100,000 businesses each year.

This is the second time the president's budget includes unwarranted attacks on this vital program. The grants were saved for this summer when Congress did not adopt the president's proposal last year, but the program is now at risk again this year for future summers. If these grants are eliminated, many states will have to reduce their beach monitoring efforts, and others—including Florida, Alabama, and Maine, whose programs are funded solely by federal grants—may be forced to shut down their monitoring and notification programs entirely. With over 20,000 days of beach closures and advisories issued last year, now is not the time to stop monitoring beachwater and notifying the public of danger.

The administration should not jeopardize the health of millions of people, billions of dollars in economic activity, and millions of jobs in order to shave a tiny fraction off of the EPA's budget. It just doesn't make sense. The administration should restore EPA funding of the BEACH Act grant program at least at the previous level of $9.8 million. That’s a lot of money, but not when spread among states or compared to the EPA budget.

The bottom line is that EPA is not doing its job to help make sure we are safe when our families head to the beach. EPA should revisit its new standards to ensure they are more protective of public health, and EPA should maintain funding for beach monitoring and notification programs.

Because our leaders are not implementing needed beach safety policies, it is especially important that people consider safety precautions and carefully choose a beach for a family trip. Here are a few good rules of thumb to follow.

Tips to protect yourself when you go to the beach:

  • Know before you go.  Check to see how your favorite beach fared in our Testing the Waters report. For many beaches, information is also available from local groups and health agencies on a weekly or more frequent basis. 
  • Heed the signs.  Look for signs and postings as soon as you get to the beach.  If you see a sign that says the beach could be contaminated, stay out of the water. If you choose to ignore the sign and go in the water anyway, don’t be shocked if you get sick anytime up to two weeks later.
  • Avoid the flow.  Stay clear of flowing storm drains on the beach. These drains are often a source of contamination and typically convey polluted runoff from nearby (or even far-away) streets and neighborhoods. These drains can also contain raw or partially treated sewage.  A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 50 yards away from any flowing drain; the farther away, the better.
  • Stay away when it rains.  Don’t go in the water if it is raining because the rain washes all the gunk and grime from city streets into local waterways. Avoid swimming for at least 24 hours after it rains and 72 hours after heavy rains.