More money needed to test polluted beaches

From Nancy Stoner, director of the National Resources Defense Council's Clean Water Project:

Human and animal waste is contaminating beachwaters across the United States and led to more than 120 advisory days at N.C. beaches in 2007.

When it rains, overflowing sewers, stormwater pipes and treatment plant bypasses dump untreated sewage, contaminated stormwater and bacteria into our beachwaters. It can make swimmers sick.

Nationally, 7 percent of beachwater samples in 2007 had bacteria levels that violated public health standards. Swimming at polluted beaches can cause severe stomach upset, earaches, pinkeye, respiratory ailments and even serious diseases such as meningitis and hepatitis.

In 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, which provided federal money to state and local agencies to set up beachwater monitoring and public notification programs. Since then every coastal state, including the Great Lakes, had set up programs to test beaches for fecal contamination. The funds support an N.C. program run by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which monitors all 240 public coastal beaches in the state.

Those testing programs are a significant step, but the tests they use take 24-48 hours. That creates a dangerous window of time in which people may be unknowingly swimming in human or animal waste. The current federal program supports monitoring and notifying the public but not tracking the pollution sources.

The Natural Resources Defense Council supports using tests that can detect the disease-causing pathogens and provide same-day results, so the public can be promptly notified of unsafe beachwaters. It also supports federal funding to pinpoint pollution sources.

The Beach Protection Act, pending in Congress, would reauthorize the BEACH Act and improve health protection. The Senate is considering a bipartisan bill which would increase money for North Carolina to test water and would provide new money to identify pollution sources and require a rapid testing method.

N.C. beachgoers should not have to worry about whether the water is contaminated with sewage. The Beach Protection Act, if adequately funded, would help prevent beachwater pollution by tracking down sources so they can be cleaned up. That should mean fewer advisory days at N.C. beaches and safer swimming.