We thank the Bangor Daily News for its interest in the clean-water work of Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as outlined in the July 11 editorial “ Pull on the bikini and enjoy Maine’s clean beaches.” We share the hope that Mainers will get out and enjoy the great beaches in the state this summer, and we’re working to make sure they’re informed about potential health risks when they do.
When beach water is contaminated with viruses, bacteria and other pathogens, it can make people sick if they swim. NRDC’s report “Testing the Waters” summarizes data provided by states about beach closings and swimming advisories and sampling done to detect the presence of bacteria that indicate human or animal waste contamination. In 2011, approximately 9 percent of samples taken along Maine’s seashore were worse than the national recommended public health standard, which was slightly higher than the average contamination rate for the 30 coastal and Great Lakes states the report profiles.
Upon making the data public, Environment Maine and NRDC pointed out that the Maine Healthy Beaches program has been proactive in trying to identify sources of pollution to address beach contamination issues. And we highlighted that beach water is sampled near potential contamination sources — a responsible practice, given that people swim in a variety of locations.
But we had constructive criticism for the program, which is that a beach advisory should be issued when a sample exceeds the relevant public health standard. That’s a precautionary approach to protect public health that is not routinely followed in Maine but is in other places. NRDC’s report cites Georgia as one such state, for example.
We think it’s worth having a public conversation about Maine’s notification practices. We highlighted this issue because officials from Gov. LePage’s administration presented an incomplete picture of the safety of our beaches by emphasizing only how often beach advisories and closings were issued in 2011. Advisories and closings are not the best measure of beach water pollution, since the decision to issue them is a judgment call that looks at a variety of things. Indeed, if you take a comprehensive look at all of the water quality samples taken at the 50 Maine beaches that have monitored water quality in each of the last five years, the rate that bacterial levels exceeded the public health standard did not improve over the period.
What’s most important, however, is our agreement with the BDN that advocates and state and local officials need to work in partnership to address the key sources of beach pollution. We also need to push modernization of the health standards that are used for identifying contamination problems.
Because polluted runoff is the biggest known source of pollution that officials identify for swimming advisories or beach closings, state officials and the Environmental Protection Agency need to rigorously enforce existing clean water requirements to ensure that runoff is controlled using innovative solutions known as green infrastructure that enable communities to naturally absorb or use runoff before it causes problems. Smart green infrastructure policies, like linking stormwater fees to the amount of impervious area on a site — as Portland recently advanced — can help prevent water pollution that can put people, our coastal economies and our communities at risk.
In addition, EPA is revising the safety standards designed to protect swimmers from getting sick, but the agency needs to strengthen its weak proposed standards, which — based on EPA’s estimates of illness risks — would make it acceptable for 1 in 28 swimmers to become ill. The proposed standards also do not adequately consider the risks of other health effects such as rashes and ear, eye and sinus infections, all of which are commonly experienced by swimmers at U.S. beaches.
This summer marks a critical time for all of us who care about and enjoy our beaches to call on EPA to do their job to protect public health and ensure that public health officials base closing and advisory decisions on the best science available.
Working together, we can clean up our great Maine beaches and give Mainers the information they need to protect themselves from getting sick.
Emily Figdor is director of Environment Maine, and Jon Devine is senior attorney for the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.