State’s Beach Closings Decrease: Environment Rhode Island Calls for Better Protections

For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON (June 29, 2011) – As millions of Americans flock to beaches around the country, pollution from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continue to plague America’s beaches. Environment Rhode Island reported that beach closings and advisories due to pollution dropped last year in Rhode Island to a total of 71 days of closed beaches, and nationwide there was the second-highest number of closing and advisory days in more than two decades last year, according to Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) 21st annual beachwater quality report released today.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said, “Rhode Islanders know that a healthy Bay means clean beaches and a vibrant tourism economy.  Sixteen million people visit Rhode Island each year to enjoy our beaches, seafood, and water sports – creating 55,000 jobs and injecting $6.8 billion into our economy.  We’ve made great strides in reducing wastewater pollution into Narragansett Bay, but this report reminds us of the progress still to be made to protect our economy and our environment.”

“Our beaches are a pride of Rhode Island and are places that people across the region come to visit during the summer,” said Eliza Brashares with Environment Rhode Island. “We applaud Rhode Island for taking significant steps to reduce beachwater pollution and protect public health.”

In its 21st year, NRDC’s annual report – Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches – analyzes government data on beachwater testing results from 2010 at more than 3,000 beach testing locations nationwide. The report confirms that last year, our nation’s beachwater continued to suffer from serious contamination – including oil and human and animal waste – and a concerted effort to control future pollution is required. The report tallied 71 beach closing and health advisory days in 2010 in Rhode Island, a 60 percent decline from the year before.

The report also provides a 5-star rating guide to 200 of the nation’s most popular beaches, evaluating them for water quality and best practices for testing and public notification. For the first time, NRDC is awarding top performers “Superstar” status. NRDC also highlights the top 10 “Repeat Offender” beaches with persistently poor water quality year after year. Testing the Waters this year also includes a special section dedicated to oil-related beach closures, advisories, and notices in the Gulf of Mexico region since the BP oil spill last year. In Rhode Island, the following beaches received a 2-star rating: Goddard Memorial State Park in Kent County, Narragansett Town Beach in Washington County, and Scarborough State Beach North and South in Washington County.

“America’s beaches have long suffered from pollution – the difference is now we know what to do about it,” said NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine. “By making our communities literally greener on land – we can make the water at the beach cleaner. In the years to come, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this dirty legacy.”

RHODE ISLAND & NATIONAL FINDINGS – 2010:

Closing and advisory days at America’s beaches spiked to the second-highest level in the 21 years since NRDC began compiling this report at 24,091 days, a 29 percent increase from the previous year. The increase is largely because of heavy rainfall in Hawaii, contamination from unidentified sources in California, and oil washing up in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP disaster.

In Rhode Island, most closing and advisory days were the result of bacterial contamination or rain.

The large majority of closing and advisory days nationwide, 70 percent, were issued because testing revealed indicator bacteria levels in the water that exceeded health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. Stormwater runoff was the primary known source of known pollution nationwide, consistent with past years, indicating the problem has not been sufficiently addressed at the national level. Sewage overflows were also a contributor.

This year’s report found that water quality at America’s beaches remained largely steady, with 8 percent of beachwater samples nationwide exceeding public health standards in 2010, compared to 7 percent for the previous four years. In Rhode Island, the percentage of health standard exceedances decreased to 8 percent in 2010 from 20 percent the previous year.

Rhode Island ranked (lowest to highest) 18th in the nation for the number of samples exceeding national standards in 2010. Individual states with the highest rates of reported contamination in 2010 were Louisiana (37 percent exceeding health standards), Ohio (21 percent), and Indiana (16 percent). Those with the lowest rates of contamination last year were New Hampshire (1 percent), New Jersey (2 percent), Oregon (3 percent), Hawaii (3 percent) and Delaware (3 percent).

The region with the most frequently contaminated beachwater in 2010 was the Great Lakes, where 15 percent of beachwater samples exceeded public health standards. The Southeast, New York-New Jersey coast and Delmarva region proved the cleanest at 4 percent, 5 percent and 6 percent respectively.

Under the federal BEACH Act, states regularly test their beachwater for bacteria found in human and animal waste. These bacteria indicate the presence of pathogens. When beach managers determine that water contamination exceeds health standards – or in some cases when a state suspects levels would exceed standards, such as after heavy rain – they notify the public through beach closures or advisories.

Beachwater pollution nationwide causes a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal. The incidence of infections has been steadily growing over the past several decades, and with coastal populations growing it is reasonable to expect this upward trend to continue until the pollution sources are addressed.

NRDC’s star-criteria system awards up to five stars to each of the 200 popular beaches in our ratings guide. Stars are earned for exceeding health standards less than 5 percent of the time last year and over the last three years, and for the following best practices: testing more than once a week, notifying the public promptly when tests reveal bacteria levels exceeding health standards, and posting closings and advisories both online and at the beach.

OIL SPILL IMPACT ON GULF BEACHES:

More than a year later, the impacts of the BP oil disaster – the worst in U.S. history – still linger in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of two months, approximately 170 million gallons of oil gushed into Gulf waters, washing up on approximately 1,000 miles of shoreline. As of the end of January, 83 miles of shoreline remained heavily or moderately oiled, while tar balls and weathered oil continue to wash ashore.

As a result, many beaches in the region have issued oil spill advisories, closures, and notices since the disaster began more than a year ago. A state-by-state look at oil spill notices, advisories, and closures at Gulf Coast beaches from the beginning of the spill through June 15, 2011 can be found online here: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/gulf.pdf.

The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has caused tremendous damage not only to the environment and communities of the region, but also their economies. This includes the lucrative ocean tourism and recreation industries in Gulf states, which generated a combined $15.4 billion in 2004 alone.

In order to help ensure a disaster like this never happens again, Congress should implement the recommendations of President Obama’s National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and help move the nation to cleaner sources of energy that can’t spill or run out.

SOLUTIONS:

EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way into our surface waters each year, and there are 850 billion gallons of wastewater, which includes sewage and stormwater, released in combined sewer overflows annually.

The best way to protect swimmers from beachwater pollution is to prevent it, according to Environment Rhode Island. A key solution is investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land – like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels – that makes a real difference in the water.

Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to the beach. And it keeps it from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows.

These smarter water practices on land not only prevent pollution at the beach – they beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies and support American jobs at the same time.

Cities nationwide are already starting to embrace these practices at the local level. Now, our federal government has significant opportunities to increase its prevalence on the national level.

“The EPA has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the use of green infrastructure in communities nationwide. Right now they are in the process of updating their national rules for tackling runoff pollution,” said Brashares.  “We urge the EPA to protect Rhode Island’s beaches by creating strong stormwater regulations to reduce runoff from new and existing developments, and apply runoff standards to all communities.”