Citing a spike in the number of beach closures in California and the nation as a wake-up call, an environmental watchdog group is expected to file a lawsuit today against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to adopt tougher water quality standards to protect beachgoers from waterborne illnesses.
"People are swimming in bacteria at our local beaches and it's making them sick," said attorney David Beckman, director of the Coast Water Quality Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The NRDC reported that beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination in Los Angeles County jumped 50% in 2005, hitting a record high for the third consecutive year. More rain and better measurement methods accounted for much of the increase. Across California, the report showed 5,175 closings and health advisory days -- nearly half of them in Los Angeles County -- at beaches last year.
Around the nation, beaches were closed or posted with health advisories 20,000 times last year, the report showed. The findings are contained in the NRDC's annual "Testing the Waters" survey.
Many of the Southland's dirty beaches are well known. The latest "beach bums" survey lists some of the worst offenders as Will Rogers State Beach, where water tests failed to meet health standards at least half the time; Avalon Beach at Catalina Island; Cabrillo Beach; Dockweiler State Beach; Malibu Beach; and Topanga State Beach.
Despite decades of cleanup efforts, ocean pollution remains a significant public heath concern in Southern California, especially in the Santa Monica Bay, home to some of the nation's most popular beaches. Bacterial pollution sickens as many as 1.5 million Southern California beachgoers annually, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in healthcare costs, according to a study released last month by UCLA and Stanford researchers.
"We're all concerned about the issue and want to see more progress, and we're working on it," said Jonathan E. Fielding, public health director for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
Surf contaminated with bacteria can cause ear, nose and throat infections, skin rashes, digestive tract illnesses and other health problems.
The pollution comes from a wide mix of sources scattered across the Los Angeles Basin, including animal waste, factories, septic tanks, sewage, pesticides and oil and metals deposited on city streets.
Contamination is worse in winter, when storms flush more waste into the ocean, officials said. Tracking every source of runoff can be a problem.
"Not even the regulators or the public know where all the drains are," said Alexis Strauss, water division director for the EPA's California office. "It's hard to get a handle on all these sources near the coast."
The Bush administration has tripled the amount of beach monitoring since 2001 and provided $52 million to states to monitor pollution in surf, according to Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water.
The EPA refused to comment on the case, other than to say it is "committed to fully implementing our beach monitoring goals. The agency is focused on using the best science, as it evolves, to deliver the best protection possible for beachgoers."
Nevertheless, the NRDC alleges in its lawsuit, to be filed today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, that the EPA has missed key deadlines set forth in the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Cleanup and Health Act of 2000, and failed to ensure that ocean water quality is safe.
Specifically, the complaint alleges that the EPA has failed to assess the full range of human illnesses related to beach pollution and all water conditions that contribute to sicknesses. It also alleges that the EPA did not identify all pathogens that pollute coastal waters and failed to devise methods to ensure rapid notification of unhealthful conditions.
Under the law, those tasks were to have culminated in the adoption of new ocean water quality standards by October 2005. Beckman said the NRDC lawsuit is intended to force compliance with the law.
"This is Public Health 101, to provide protection using modern methods and the latest scientific standards to protect tens of millions of people in California who use the beaches," he said.
Last month, California officials postponed action on strict, enforceable limits for dischargers who contribute to beach pollution.
While other measures to protect water quality are proceeding, the one in dispute would limit discharges of fecal coliform, an indicator of harmful pathogens in water, during summer.
Officials at the state's Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board said the controls need more study and will be reconsidered later this year.
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Beaches that violated public health standards at least half of the time water samples were taken:
Los Angeles County
* Will Rogers State Beach
* Aliso Beach
* Crystal Cove State Park
* Doheny State Beach
* Newport Bay (Santa Ana Delhi)
* Newport Beach (Buck Gully)
* Salt Creek Beach Park
San Diego County
* Imperial Beach
* Rincon Creek
Beaches that violated health standards 33% to 49% of the time:
Los Angeles County
* Avalon Beach
* Cabrillo Beach
* Dockweiler State Beach (Ballona Creek)
* Malibu Beach
* Topanga State Beach
* Will Rogers State Beach (Temescal Canyon)
Santa Barbara County
* East Beach
San Diego County
* Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge
Los Angeles Times