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Testing the Waters: Are the Nation's Beaches Safe?

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The beach bums -- states that either have no regular monitoring program or public notification procedures to warn beach goers about quality problems -- are Louisiana, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, according to the report.

The best beaches, or places that at least monitor their water using the latest standards, include East Haven Town Beach in East Haven, Conn.; North Beach and Oceanside at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland; Revere Beach in Revere, Mass.; and Short Beach in Winthrop, Mass., the report says.

While widespread drought meant fewer pollution problems for the nation's beaches in 1999, beach closings and advisories continued to run at record highs, indicating that too little is being done to prevent beach pollution, Chasis adds. In total, there were more than 6,000 closings and advisories in 1999, a 50% increase over 1997, according the report. The total is lower than 1998, but during that year, El Niño storms in Southern California jacked up the number of beach closings and advisories, she says.

A bill is pending before Congress that would establish national health standards for beach waters, adds Nancy Stoner, JD, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. The bill enjoys widespread support, she says. However, new federal rules to at least eliminate the sewage discharges that continue to contaminate popular beaches are being held up by the Office of Management and Budget despite President Clinton's earlier promise to help eliminate the problem, she says.

"We can control the pollution from these sources," Stoner says. The key is to pass regulations that prevent raw sewage from hitting beaches, and place it in sewage plants where it belongs, she says. Considering that coastal waters support about 28.3 million jobs and generate about $54 billion in goods and services, this would also make good economic sense, she notes.

Still, regular monitoring can get expensive. For example, the average cost of monitoring beaches in 1998 was approximately $1,138 per mile of beach with the cost in some places such as California topping $4,000 per mile. But the question is not one of just economics, Stoner observes. Even under the current EPA standards, a total of 19 people per 1,000 swimmers can be expected to contract stomach infections, she says.

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