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California and the West

Congress OKs Bill on Reporting Beach Pollution


WASHINGTON — A bill that would expand the testing of coastal waters for disease-causing pathogens and ensure that beachgoers are warned when water is contaminated cleared Congress on Tuesday.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), a former lifeguard and avid surfer, is expected to be signed into law by President Clinton.

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act would offer states about $150 million over five years as an incentive to establish monitoring and public notification programs.

"Providing beachgoers with better information on the quality of their waters--and closing the beaches when they're polluted--will not only make people safer but will hopefully inspire them to take action against pollution," said Betsy McEvoy of the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington-based environmental group.

California is among 11 states praised by environmentalists for its monitoring and public notification program. But members of the state's congressional delegation were among the measure's strongest proponents, contending that the lack of testing elsewhere hurts California's image. They argued that California beaches may be perceived as dirtier than the shorelines in many other states that do not regularly test their coastal waters or advise the public of the results.

California beaches were closed for the day or posted with warnings a record 3,547 times in 1999 because of ocean bacteria, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Bacteria from storm runoff have been a major problem in Southern California.

Sarah Chasis, senior attorney for the council, said the bill sent to Clinton will provide consistent standards "so that, when people go swimming, whether it is in California, New York or Michigan, they can be sure they're subject to the same high level of protection."

Lawmakers said the bill would give state and local governments flexibility and incentives to implement monitoring programs.

Under the measure, the Environmental Protection Agency also would be required to work with states to ensure that they use the latest scientific methods to sample and test beach waters to protect the public's health.

Bilbray termed the bill "a real triumph for coastal communities, ocean enthusiasts and, in fact, all beach users across the country."

The legislation was a personal passion for Bilbray--he appeared on Capitol Hill with his surfboard and a star of the "Baywatch" television show to promote the measure. It also could prove politically important for him, bolstering his environmental credentials in his tight campaign for reelection.

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