A prominent environmental group trashed South Carolina's beaches Tuesday, ranking their waters the sixth-most contaminated in the country.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control strongly disputed the findings of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It accused the environmental group of using incomplete or erroneous data.
Among 1,214 samples taken and tested at 22 beaches along the S.C. coast last year, 13 percent had bacterial contamination exceeding the maximum safety level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the NRDC.
That figure was almost twice as high as the 7 percent national average – and it was much higher than the totals for neighboring North Carolina (2 percent).
“South Carolina did notably worse than the rest of the Southeast in terms of the quality of its beach water,” said Nancy Stoner, director of the environmental organization's clean water project. “Nationwide, we've had no improvement that we can find in addressing the sources of beach-water pollution and in cleaning up the beaches.”
S.C. beaches had the lowest water-quality rankings among all 15 states bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
Nationwide, only the Great Lakes beaches of Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana – plus the Gulf Coast waters of Louisiana – were more contaminated, according to the NRDC.
Alaska, New Hampshire and Delaware had the country's cleanest beaches, the group said.
Eight of South Carolina's 10 most contaminated beaches are along the Grand Strand in Horry and Georgetown counties, the NRDC reported.
Clair Boatwright, a DHEC spokeswoman, said the NRDC skewed its findings for South Carolina beach waters because it excluded key sampling data.
“South Carolina's beaches are clean,” she said. “We monitor effectively to protect the public and provide warnings when warranted. Their percentages were in error and quite a bit higher than the actual data prove.”
The bacteria measured in the EPA-funded tests cause stomach flu, rashes, respiratory illnesses, pink eye and earaches. Elderly swimmers, children, pregnant women, cancer patients and people with impaired immune systems are especially vulnerable.
Tests measure the amount of enterococcus, a common bacteria in human and animal feces, in beach water.
A level above 104 “colony forming units” of enterococcus per 100 milliliters (one-tenth of a liter) is deemed unsafe by the EPA. The NRDC reports the percentage of beach-water samples with higher concentrations of enterococcus.