WASHINGTON (September 9, 2008) – In a settlement to a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to develop new public health standards and pollution testing methods for U.S. beaches. The settlement agreement will result in a safer, healthier experience for tens of millions of people who visit U.S. beaches each year, according to NRDC.
The settlement, which was approved by the court last Friday, requires EPA to conduct new health studies and develop water quality standards by 2012 to protect the public from a broader range of swimming-related illnesses associated with beachwater pollution than it has in the past. The new criteria must protect against skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory illnesses, ear infections, as well as more serious illnesses such as hepatitis and meningitis. Current standards are based only on gastrointestinal ailments commonly known as the stomach flu. The agency also committed to developing a rapid test method, enabling same-day results of pollution tests for beachgoers.
“This is a major victory for everyone who wants to go to the beach without worrying about getting sick,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s clean water project. “The government needs to do a better job of screening for pollutants and pathogens and making the information available on a timely basis, so that families going to the beach know when it’s safe to swim.”
The agreement also requires EPA to study the health risks posed by stormwater runoff, the biggest known source of pollution at beaches. “Stormwater carries human and animal waste to the beach, where it can make people sick,” according to Stoner, “but EPA has previously ignored this major pollution source in setting safety standards.”
NRDC sued EPA in May 2006 after the agency repeatedly failed to meet congressionally mandated deadlines to update its water quality standards based on new research and to develop new tests that provide same-day results. Tests currently in use take 24-48 hours to produce results, so the information on whether a beach is safe for swimming is at least a day old (and often older) before people get it.
“This settlement forces the EPA to develop new beach water quality criteria that will better protect the health of millions of beachgoers,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based environmental organization that has worked closely with the NRDC to urge clean water enforcement.
Stoner said additional steps are needed to ensure that the faster testing protocols are actually implemented. The settlement does not require beaches to actually use the new tests, so the U.S. Senate needs to pass the Beach Protection Act, legislation currently pending in Congress which would require states to start using rapid tests within a year of their validation by EPA.