Quality Decision

After a year and a half of litigation, the NRDC has finally settled with the Environmental Protection Agency over the BEACH Act lawsuit.  As a result, the EPA will develop long overdue beach water quality criteria for swimmers nationwide. 

The current criteria were developed in 1985 and are based on health effects studies completed in the late 1970s.  Obviously, a lot has happened in the beach water quality world since then.

The 1995 Santa Monica Bay health effects study demonstrated that people who swim in runoff- contaminated waters are far more likely to get sick than those that swim 400 yards or more away from a flowing stormdrain.  The EU and the World Health Organization conducted a series of health effects studies that showed an even stronger relationship between swimming in sewage-contaminated waters and adverse health outcomes.  Also, there have been numerous breakthroughs in environmental microbiology over the last 25-plus years.

The settlement means that the EPA needs to develop and approve new criteria based on the latest science by 2012.  The agency must consider all recent health effects studies and conduct new studies at urban runoff contaminated beaches and beaches in the tropics.  The EPA has never done that before.  Also, the agency will develop at least one criterion based on more rapid methods of beach water quality analysis. Imagine that a sample gets collected at 7 a.m.at your favorite beach and the local lifeguard posts a warning sign based on the water quality results by 11 a.m. on the same day. That would be an enormous improvement of where we are today.  Currently, it takes about 24 hours to get analytical results from collected samples.  That means you can go surfing on Saturday in polluted water and find out about it by Sunday at the earliest. Not exactly protective of public health.

As a technical expert for NRDC on this case, I think that the settlement should lead to better protection of the public health for the hundreds of millions of beachgoers who enjoy our nation’s beaches every year.  As a co-investigator on ongoing health effects studies in Avalon and at Doheny Beach, I can tell you that the scientific and environmental community will have to be vigilant with the EPA, watching closely that  the new criteria development process truly is more protective.

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