Chris Gregson doesn’t think much about how clean the ocean is when he goes to the beach. The 50-year-old Atlantic City resident rarely goes in, unless the water is warm.
But, he said, the perception that the water is polluted endures, decades after tough laws forced towns to stop dumping raw sewage into the water.
“In the past five to 10 years, the water has been great,” he said.
In a report released last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked New Jersey seventh in the nation for its swimming-beach water quality, a drop of three places from last year. The rankings consider thousands of test results from coastal swimming beaches in 30 states, along with how frequently towns check the water for fecal coliform bacteria and the number of beach closings.
In New Jersey, unlike in several other states, beaches are closed only if two water tests in a row fail to meet standards. Counties, including Cape May and Atlantic, don’t post notices about high bacteria counts unless a second test has failed.
“It could be anything causing it,” said Cape May County spokeswoman Lenore Boninfante. “That’s why if a second test comes back, if there is a problem, that’s going to (test positive) two consecutive times.”
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th, is pushing for stricter standards in a funding bill he introduced last week. The bill would revive a federal program started in 2000 that pays for routine testing of the water quality at swimming beaches. The bill also would set stricter public notification standards and tougher testing measures.
“Stormwater runoff is one of the primary contributors of water pollution, and now more than ever improved water quality and beach protections have become increasingly important to the Jersey Shore,” said Pallone, who is running for the U.S. Senate. “Both from a public health standpoint and for the vitality of New Jersey’s booming tourism industry, stricter standards and better testing methods are needed to give beachgoers the piece of mind that the beaches they visit are clean.”
In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a new standard for how much coliform bacteria could be in the water and still meet water quality guidelines. The new standard allows for a count of 126 colonies of E. coli per sample, compared with the previous standard of 104 colonies.
The EPA under this standard, environmental advocates warned, only considers serious gastrointestinal illnesses as evidence of bacterial pollution, not more common skin and respiratory infections.
“A lot of people we speak to, they rely on the county, the state, the federal government, to make sure they are safe,” said Sean Dixon, an attorney with Clean Ocean Action. Last month, Dixon’s group, along with several other environmental groups in New Jersey and New York, filed suit against the EPA, claiming the new standard did not protect public health. “They’re not fulfilling that trust, and that failing is leading to our lawsuit.
Test results for Atlantic and Cape May counties show few failed tests compared with beaches in northern Ocean and Monmouth counties. So far this year, no beaches have been closed, and last year, the only beach closings in South Jersey were in Ocean City, due to broken sewer pipes.
High levels of coliform bacteria tend to form after heavy rainstorms wash waste into the water. Sometimes a broken sewage pipe is to blame. But most of the time there is no documented reason for the failed test, according to state Department of Environmental Protection reports. Last year, several beaches in Ocean City were closed at times due to sewage pipe problems.
Part of the reason for not knowing where the pollution sources are, some advocates say, is a lack of funding. Health departments, which manage the testing at a local level, have the money to test the water, but not the money to root out where the pollution is coming from except in the most obvious cases. The EPA has allocated tens of thousands of dollars every year since 2000 to states under the BEACH Act for water testing. However, funding for the program is expected to run out in October because of federal budget cuts.
Pallone’s bill would reinstate funding for the BEACH Act program, according to a statement from his office.
Noting how New Jersey ranked on recent reports is important, Gregson said as he sat on a bench in Ventnor overlooking the beach.
“The Jersey Shore is famous,” Gregson said. “People need to hear those statistics.”
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