Ocean City and Cape May County officials turned out to be overly cautious by closing three beaches to swimmers Sunday and Monday after water tests showed no excessive contamination from a sewage pipe that overflowed on First Street.
Officials said from the beginning that the closings were precautionary measures for swimmers’ safety, and the beaches were reopened Tuesday after tests found bacteria levels well within healthy standards.
The closings were the third in three weeks on the island after fears that sewage from clogged and overflowing pipes washed down storm drains that discharge into the ocean. Two of the incidents have now been false alarms, either because there was no leakage or there was not enough to harm bathers in the open water.
However, in the case of last week’s closings between Eighth, Ninth and 10th streets, the bacteria levels were several times the legal limit in the morning on Aug. 6.
Cape May County Health Officer Kevin Thomas said Tuesday that while there was a sewage backup in this most recent case, he guessed that not that much of the waste made it into a nearby storm drain.
But Thomas said his department, the city and New Jersey American Water were still using the incident to try to make more businesses, residents and visitors aware of how their actions can lead to these types of problems with sewage backups.
The tests the county Department of Health conducts are for enterococci, bacterial organisms commonly found in human intestines and feces. High concentrations in swimming water can indicate fecal pollution and the presence of disease-causing pathogens.
Federal health standards state that if a sample finds more than 104 enterococci per 100 milliliters of salt water, then the beach should be closed to swimmers until the levels are lower. The samples taken Monday morning at the beaches on First, Second and Third streets found levels of 16 enterococci per 100 milliliters at First Street and undetectable levels at the other two streets.
By comparison, the level at Eighth Street last week was 616 enterococci per 100 millileters, and the levels at Ninth Street and 10th Street were 336 and 228 respectively, Thomas said.
Peter Eschbach, spokesman for New Jersey American Water, said these issues surface periodically in shore towns because of the high volume of people who visit each summer, especially during the July to August tourist peak.
He said they have found that any kind of grease being dumped down drains, along with sanitary wipes and paper towels being flushed down toilets are the most common reasons for clogged pipes.
“It’s a fairly simple situation,” he said. “You probably would not do that back at your house, so don’t do that while you’re visiting.”
He also said that people should be more aware of how their actions can affect everyone around them.
“If they’re stuffing paper towels down a public toilet, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I might not be able to go to the beach tomorrow,’” Eschbach said.
Jim Mallon, director of community services in Ocean City, said his employees were distributing more information to Boardwalk merchants and were working with real estate agencies to better inform homeowners and renters.
“Certainly with two incidents two weeks in a row we thought it was worth the extra effort,” Mallon said.
Ocean City is the only shore town in Cape May County that has had beach closings this year due to sewage overflows, although other beaches in the Wildwoods and Cape May have been closed in the recent past, Thomas said.
Contact Lee Procida:
Follow Lee Procida on Twitter @ACPressLee