It's summer, time to hit the beaches in Maryland and elsewhere. But are they safe for swimming?
Local health departments, with help and oversight from the state Department of the Environment, are responsible for checking the water for contamination by human or animal waste. Health agencies typically post alerts to the public if bacteria levels are found high enough to pose a threat that bathers could become sick from splashing around.
In Anne Arundel County, with 533 miles of shoreline and more than 100 community beaches, there's extra vigilance, with testing done not just by the health department but by environmental groups and private communities.
My colleague Pam Wood has a great story today in the Baltimore Sun about the testing. While the unofficial groups don't have authority to post warnings or swim advisories, they do post their results, which unfortunately often indicate unsafe conditions at some popular community beaches in the county.
Sometimes the contamination comes from sewage or septic leaks, sometimes from wildlife. But usually, bacteria counts go up after a storm, as rainfall washes animal and human waste, trash and other debris into the water. That's another reason environmental groups favor local storm-water management fees - derided as a "rain tax" by opponents - to pay for controlling and cleaning up that runoff.
Meanwhile, several environmental groups have filed notice that they intend to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its beach water-quality monitoring criteria, the guidelines followed nationwide by most state and local authorities in testing beach safety and deciding whether to warn the public or close places to swimming.
The groups - Clean Ocean Action, Hackensack Riverkeeper, Heal the Bay, Natural Resources Defense Council, NY/NJ Baykeeper, Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance - contend that new beach monitoring criteria that EPA adopted last year fail to adequately protect the public's health. EPA now allows up to 10 percent of water samples to have contamination levels it deems unsafe without considering that a violation, the groups contend.
The agency's criteria would now permit a level of risk where 36 out of 1,000 beachgoers might become ill with nausea, stomach aches and vomiting, the groups contend. Moreover, they say, the EPA's criteria deal mainly with preventing stomach illnesses without considering conditions that could lead to other health problems, such as skin rashes and ear infections.