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California and the West

Bill on Testing Ocean Quality Is Approved

House: State's congressional representatives lead campaign to 'level playing field' between states that test and those that don't.

April 23, 1999|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Chalk up a victory for the congressional Surf Caucus.

The House unanimously approved a bill Thursday to spur states into monitoring the ocean for disease-causing pathogens and warning beach-goers when the water is contaminated.

Which explains the odd sight on the Capitol grounds after the vote: a group of congressmen holding up surfboards to celebrate the bill's passage.

"The public has a right to know what they're swimming in," said the measure's chief sponsor, Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), an avid surfer and onetime mayor of Imperial Beach.

A number of California communities, including Los Angeles and Orange counties, already test coastal waters, and a new California law mandates weekly testing at heavily used public beaches between April and October.

But many other coastal states do not regularly check the water or report their findings.

Supporters of Bilbray's bill, which now goes to the Senate, say it could create a more even playing field between states that test and those that do not.

"The standards that states use to measure beach water safety vary from state to state," Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay wrote earlier this year in urging its members to write their members of Congress to support the bill. "This creates a scenario whereby states that actually monitor regularly--like California--may be unfairly represented in the public eye."

As an example, Darryl Hatheway, a board member of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, noted that San Diego County officials are testing, "and they get criticized because they have beach closures. Yet other states are not doing anything at all. They have no idea if they have poor water quality or not."

The bill seeks to ensure that "you can go to the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., Santa Monica or Cape Cod and know you're protected from getting sick when you swim," said Sarah Chasis, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Beaches Environmental Assessment, Cleanup and Health Act would make $150 million available to encourage state and local governments to test coastal waters and notify the public when swimming in the ocean could cause illness.

The bill would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work with state and local governments to develop a minimum standard for water quality at beaches.

The bill also would establish a sort of coast-to-coast beach report card on the Internet for checking on water quality and noting which states do not have monitoring programs. Los Angeles County already has a hotline for checking on beach pollution, (800) 525-5662.

"Just as we provide assurances to the public that water supplies will be safe for drinking, no matter which state a person happens to be in, the public should feel confident that the public health standards at our nation's beaches meet minimum, consistent health requirements," said Rep. Robert A. Borski (D-Pa.).

One reason the bill won support from lawmakers representing states that already test coastal waters was concern that those efforts--and the occasional posting of a health warning--might unfairly cost their communities tourist dollars. "Clean coastal waters are not just about fun. They really are about business," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).

In previous years, New Jersey congressmen made several unsuccessful efforts to mandate testing of coastal waters after their state suffered a barrage of bad publicity and lost tourism because of ocean pollution. They complained that other states--possibly with beaches as bad or worse--benefited from the lack of testing.

Bilbray's bill was embraced in part because it recommends that states conduct testing and makes money available to help them do so, but does not require it.

The bill's chances in the Senate, its supporters say, are bolstered by the alliance House Republicans and environmental groups forged in backing the measure.

"We hope the Senate will catch the wave," said David Younkman, executive director of the American Oceans Campaign.

What may really have helped prod the House vote was a threat by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), another of the chamber's surfers.

"If the [bill] fails, [Bilbray] and I will double the number of surfing videos that are played in the congressional gym," he jokingly warned his colleagues.

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