Federal grants that pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to states, including New Jersey, for testing water for health hazards at swimming beaches could be eliminated next year as part of an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to de-fund the program.
But even as state and local governments contend with the concern that federal money for testing may disappear, advocacy groups say that the testing frequency and reporting standards are not strong enough now and that swimmers, surfers and bathers are left unaware of health hazards until it’s too late.
EPA’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 recommends eliminating nearly $10 million for the grants that help pay for water-quality testing, aerial monitoring and beach cleanups.
The agency’s proposal said it would eliminate “certain mature programs and activities that are well-established ... and where there is the possibility of maintaining some of the human health benefits through implementation at the local level.”
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said New Jersey has $274,000 for fiscal year 2013 but if the proposed elimination is approved by Congress, likely some time this fall, the state will need to figure out how to pay for the program.
As concern grows that federal dollars for beach testing will be eliminated, advocacy groups such as Sandy Hook-based Clean Ocean Action and the national Surfrider Foundation say they not only are concerned that the current level of testing could be reduced, they also are advocating that testing and notification increase as a way to protect swimmers, bathers and surfers who could get sick from various pathogens in the water.
Currently, the only test is for fecal coliform bacteria, which can cause mild to severe gastrointestinal illness, however surfers and swimmers who spend a significant amount of time in the ocean report developing skin rashes, staph infections, ear infections, eye infections and even respiratory illness that they attribute to their time in the water.
New Jersey’s beaches were ranked in 2011 as having the fourth-best water quality in the nation in a Natural Resources Defense Council report released last month; the majority of beach tests in South Jersey rank in the excellent range.
However, a few beaches in Atlantic City, Brigantine, Long Beach Island, Ocean City and Stone Harbor occasionally fail the test, typically after a heavy rain that washes pollutants and bacteria into the ocean.
Failed tests are reported on a state website; by the time a second test is conducted a day later, the water quality has improved, according to an analysis of two years’ test results.
Ocean beaches on Long Beach Island tend to have excellent water quality results, but beaches in northern Ocean and Monmouth County frequently fail tests due to proximity to freshwater lakes contaminated with bird excrement and a large number of storm sewer outfall pipes.
Clean Ocean Action staff scientist Heather Saffert said that the current method of testing on Monday mornings leaves those going in the water on the weekends at risk, because the amount of harmful bacteria and other pollution changes frequently with the tides; testing later in the week would give weekend beach-goers more information. Additionally, she said, there’s little testing after it rains, which is when bacteria counts are the highest due to storm-water runoff. “We think it should be a weekly test and then a test after it rains,” Saffert said.
Federal standards also currently consider only the risk of gastrointestinal illness of a certain magnitude, not other types of illnesses such as skin rashes, eye and ear infections and even respiratory illnesses that can develop when exposed to contaminated water, said Mara Dias, water-quality manager for the National Surfrider Foundation.
The EPA is expected to release new standards this fall, but Dias said the Surfrider Foundation does not consider the changes to be an improvement. “They didn’t really do studies looking at the types of conditions that we see people develop.”
The current federal standard for swimming beaches is that the coliform bacteria count should be no more than 104 per 100 milliliters of water. At that threshold, one in 28 people could develop a gastro-intestinal illness. “If you add on all the people who might get a rash or an infection, it’s going to be a lot higher than that,” Dias said.
When a test comes back with an excessive count, the beach is re-sampled. A warning is posted at a beach only if the test is failed a second time.
Results for the second test likely won’t be known several days after the first test was taken and that means swimmers, surfers and bathers may have been exposed to harmful bacteria that could cause illness, said Sean Dixon, coastal policy attorney for Clean Ocean Action.
Hajna said that next year the state plans to begin posting warnings at beaches that test results came back exceeding standards after the initial test, which is something environmental groups support.
Atlantic County has tested the water at swimming beaches for 24 years and has received federal grant money for only the past 10 years, spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said. For 2012, the county received $58,000 in funding from the DEP and EPA, with the Atlantic City Health Department receiving $20,000 out of that money for the testing, Gilmore said.
“If funding were to be eliminated, we would still continue the program as a public service as we had done prior to its availability,” Gilmore said.
She didn’t specify how the county might pay for the program.
Atlantic County Public Health Officer Patricia Diamond said in an email that the county has not closed ocean beaches in Ventnor, Margate, Longport or Brigantine after heavy rains because tests always come in beneath the standards. Atlantic City has occasionally closed a bathing beach after rains, Diamond said.
Cape May County health department Director Kevin Thomas said the county has long conducted the testing and only in the past 10 years has it received money from the federal government to pay for it.
Thomas said he estimates the program costs about $30,000 a year and is mostly covered through federal and state grants. The water quality at ocean beaches has long been considered excellent, particularly after the county built a regional wastewater treatment plant in the 1970s, Thomas said.
If federal and state funding were to dry up for the county, the testing would still continue, Thomas said. He didn’t provide details on where the funding might come from.
“The program is very critical in Cape May County. We pride Cape May County as a tourist area and part of being a tourist area, you’d like to be swimming and have the knowledge that you’re swimming in clean recreational waters,” he said.
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