July 25, 2000 (Washington) -- Hoping to ride the tide of public opinion, a cast member from the "Baywatch" TV show, along with a U.S. senator and a surfing member of Congress, argued for legislation to protect America's beaches at a Tuesday news conference.
The unusual assemblage in front of the Capitol building even featured a 7-foot long surfboard, autographed by legislative supporters of the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act.
A similar bill passed the House unanimously last year on Earth Day, but in spite of a 10-year effort by environmentalists, the measure has failed to make it through Congress. Now in the waning days of the session, water protection groups are lobbying hard for action in the Senate.
"The senators owe it to the American people to vote on this now, because next summer when their constituents are at home with ear infections and various other ailments ... they're going to have a hard time understanding that the senators were too busy," said Michael Newman, an actor on the popular "Baywatch" TV series and a real-life lifeguard for Los Angeles County.
According to the American Oceans Campaign, beach waters are increasingly subjected to an assault from bacteria and viruses, toxic chemicals, and a variety of contaminants dumped by overflowing storm drains and septic systems. That exposes beachgoers and swimmers to a variety of dangerous diseases.
The pending Senate bill would require that the nation's 29 coastal states adopt a tough, uniform standard for water quality at their beaches, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), the measure's sponsor. Right now, only seven of the 29 states, including New Jersey and California, use the benchmark set down by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986.
"Microscopic viruses don't stay put. They travel from one place to another," said Lautenberg, who put his name on the surfboard at the event.
No fines or beach closures would be imposed by the measure, which would set national water standards and authorize $30 million each year in grants for states to carry out beach inspections and post warnings as necessary.
"For too long, surfers and swimmers have been the canaries in the coal mine waiting to get sick to get the message out that the water is not safe," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.). "And as somebody who's in the water, and whose family is in the water, I think it's time we say, 'Enough is enough.'"
Darryl Hatheway, policy analyst for the Surfrider Foundation, noted that "consistent beach water quality standards ... [are] very difficult for legislators to oppose." Yet, there is concern that in the rush to complete key appropriations measures and other business before the fall recess, the beaches bill could be inundated by election-year politics.
The fate of the bill rests largely with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, (R-Miss.) who sets the legislative agenda for the chamber. Lott's spokesman failed to respond to a query about whether the BEACH act might come up for a vote.