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Beach Warnings Increase in Texas

Environment Texas Calls for Faster Pollution Testing, Opposes More Offshore Drilling
For Immediate Release

AUSTIN (July 29, 2008) –  As millions of Americans flock to beaches around the country, Environment Texas reported that beach closings and warnings due to pollution went up last year in Texas, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council’s 18th annual beach water quality report.  The group called for increased federal funding and faster testing for beachwater pollution and decried efforts to open protected coastlines to offshore drilling. 

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, tallied 532 beach closing and health advisory days in 2007 in Texas, an eleven percent jump from the year before. In Texas, 49 percent of the closing and advisory days were caused by high bacteria levels resulting from storm water run-off. Another 49 per cent were high bacteria levels from unknown sources.

“Some families can’t enjoy a day at the beach because the water is polluted and kids are getting sick,” said Brittany Ballard, Citizen Outreach Director for Environment Texas. “Texas beachgoers should not be swimming in human and animal waste.”

For the first time, the Testing the Waters report gives a five-star rating for a selection of the most popular beaches in the nation. The star rating criteria is based on indicators of beach water quality, monitoring frequency, and use of health standards to protect beachgoers.  In Texas, no beaches earned 5 stars, and Stewart Beach Park in Galveston County and McGee Beach in Nueces County earned 1 star, because advisories at those beaches are always issued without waiting for re-sampling or other information to confirm results. 

Across the country, the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches was more than 22,000 for the third consecutive year, confirming that our nation’s beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution that puts swimmers at risk.

While nationally there was an overall decrease in beach closing and advisory days from 2006, regionally the picture varied.  The biggest increase in closing and advisory days (38 percent) was in the Gulf Coast region, partly because beaches in Louisiana and Mississippi were reopened and monitored for the first full beach season there since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005. 

The report shows that the number of closing and advisory days due to sewage spills and overflows more than tripled to 4,097 from 2006 to 2007, but the largest known source of pollution continues to be contamination from stormwater, which caused more than 10,000 closing and advisory days.  Stormwater carries pollution from the streets to the beach without treatment whenever it rains.  Unknown sources of pollution caused more than 8,000 closing and advisory days.

Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards, showing no improvement from 2006.  In Texas, 9 percent of beachwater samples violated those standards.   

“What this report means for families heading to the beach is they need to be careful and do a little homework,” said Nancy Stonerdirector of NRDC’s clean water project. “Call your local public health authority and ask them if the beachwater is safe for swimming. If there is any doubt, or if the water smells bad or looks dirty, stay out of it.”

Aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beachwater pollution. Environment Texas also said that sprawl development in coastal areas is devouring wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that otherwise would help filter out dangerous pollution before it reaches the beach. 

Not only are the beaches polluted, the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to Environment Texas.  Beach water quality standards are more than 20 years old and rely on outdated science and monitoring methods that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For small children, senior citizens and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

The Beach Protection Act (H.R. 2537/S. 1506), a bill now pending in Congress, would provide more money for beachwater sampling and require the use of faster testing methods so people get timely information about whether it is safe to swim.  The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Beach Protection Act in April and the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on the bill soon. 

“We urge Senators Cornyn and Hutchison to support the Beach Protection Act and ensure America’s beaches are tested for pollution in time to protect public health,” said Ballard. 

Environment Texas also called on Congress to continue to protect U.S. beaches from offshore oil and gas drilling. Offshore drilling threatens beaches with chronic toxic pollution from oil and gas production and oil spills from the pipelines, tankers and barges that bring oil to shore. Environment Texas also pointed to a Bush administration analysis which concluded that opening currently protected offshore areas would have an “insignificant” impact on prices.