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Blog | New EPA Regs on Water Quality: A Mixed Bag

The EPA released new public health guidelines for beach water quality and the results are a mixed bag.

The EPA released its final National Recreational Beach Water Quality Criteria this week. After many years of fighting for strong protections, we are greeting the new standards with mixed emotions. The criteria, which hadn’t been updated since 1986, basically determine the allowable levels of illness-inducing bacteria in our nation’s waterbodies. They are a critical tool for ensuring that people don’t get sick when they take a swim at their local beach or lake.

On the positive side, the new guidelines are more protective of public health in several respects than those floated in a surprisingly weak draft document last December. These improvements are thanks to the efforts of Heal the Bay and other environmental organizations.   

However, there are some major steps backwards from the 1986 criteria.  For instance, the new criteria allow for states to choose between two sets of standards based on two different estimated illness rates. Giving the states the option of selecting between two illness rates makes no sense.

Letting states determine their own “acceptable illness rates” allows for major inconsistencies in public health protection among states. What state, if left the choice, would sign-up for stricter standards? The less relaxed standard of the two is clearly less protective of public health, though EPA inaccurately claims that either set of criteria would protect public health.  Further, we do not believe the illness rates that were selected (32 or 36 allowable illnesses for every 1,000  recreators) are protective enough of public health. 

The EPA also missed a major opportunity to encourage states to provide more timely water quality results, through testing known as rapid methods.

Standard testing of water samples now take between 18-24 hours to process, meaning that the public is getting day-old water quality information, at best. EPA developed a rapid method that would get us closer to real-time measurement, therefore increasing public health protection. However, this method cannot be used as a stand-alone process under the new criteria, therefore leaving little incentive for states to move forward with more timely measurement.

The EPA is also providing too much wiggle room to municipalities in the new guidelines by allowing them to employ unproven alternative criteria at certain sites. So-called Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) allows agencies to assess potential human health risks based strictly on the presence of different fecal sources including humans, birds, cows, and dogs. in the beach water. However, much research has yet to be conducted on illness rates and risk associated with specific sources. The alternative criteria are premature to use at most sites. QMRA should only be pursued at remote beach locations (non-urbanized) with no known human sources or influences.

However, not all was lost. Heal the Bay worked very hard to change the draft criteria’s proposed 90-day geometric mean standard to 30-days, which is more indicative of the latest beach water quality, thereby more protective of public health.  This change was made in the final criteria.

In addition, we made some headway with the allowable exceedance threshold.  If a water sample exceeds the bacteria standard it means there is a potential public health risk. A lower allowable exceedance rate will trigger action from the polluter more readily and this will increase public health protection.

So it’s encouraging to see the EPA lower the previously proposed national water quality exceedance threshold from 25% to 10% (above the standard), which is more in-line with California’s current allowable exceedance rates. An allowable exceedance rate of 25% could mask chronically polluted beaches, therefore inhibiting future water quality improvement efforts.

Over the past year, Heal the Bay, along with a coalition of concerned environmental groups, fought tirelessly to strengthen the draft criteria. We submitted detailed comments including an extensive data analysis to EPA, attended countless meetings with EPA staffers, and created a campaign centered on submitting hundreds of petitions directly to EPA’s Administrator, Lisa Jackson, urging for criteria with strong public health protection. 

We also solicited the support of members of congress, such as Congressman Henry Waxman, who expressed concerns to USEPA about their approach. (Kirsten James, our Water Quality Director, traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby lawmakers on strengthening new recreational water quality criteria.)

We made several important steps forward to strengthen the EPA’s final revised standards. But we are concerned that having two sets of criteria could lead to confusion for the public and for those implementing the new criteria.  It may mean the status quo in some states, though hopefully states will choose the criteria more protective of public health.

To compound this, EPA’s Beach Grant fund, which allocates moneys towards state beach monitoring programs, may be completely eliminated in the near future. Absence of this support could lead to major backsliding of state beach programs. We are encouraging states to explore more sustainable funding sources in addition to implementing the more protective criteria, to better protect beach-goers from getting sick after a day at the beach.

Urge your congressional representative to support federal funding for beach water testing program

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

hellwood December 03, 2012 at 03:37 AM
".....So-called Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) allows agencies to assess potential human health risks based strictly on the presence of different fecal sources including humans, birds, cows, and dogs." "So-called"....of course HTB will try to avoid this at all costs, because IT WILL SHOW THE WORLD that some of these "F" grades are due to natural processes, and that cities are being set up to fail.
Hans Laetz December 04, 2012 at 04:24 PM
The above two comments are simply not correct. They represent the comments of two very earnest, very sincere people, who are simply at odds with basic, accepted, established scientific knowledge and law. They argue that Fecal Indicator Bacteria are irrelevant in detecting dangerous ocean crud, and that beaches like Surfrider are not polluted from human sources. They correctly blame birds for being the source of the bacteria and virus pollution, instead of the flushable outhouses in the sand. But they ignore the documented role of humans in flushing the beaches and water tables full of the nutrients (from human digestive tracts) that these bugs live in. The 2012 US EPA Recreation Bacteria Criteria indeed suggests that a variety of testing methods may provide new, more accurate information on illness-causing pollution. It also plainly states that Fecal Indicator Bacteria are the link to measure such pollution. "The 2012 RWQC rely on the latest research and science, including studies that show a link between illness and fecal contamination in recreational waters. They are based on the use of two bacterial indicators of fecal contamination, E. coli and enterococci." http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/standards/criteria/health/recreation/upload/factsheet2012.pdf .
hellwood December 04, 2012 at 06:56 PM
actually hans, I feel we should ban using water as a conduit to get waste from point A to point B altogether because it wastes hundreds of millions of gallons of clean water each day, as well as contributing to over-concentrations of nutrients which indeed make things MUCH worse. maybe there is just too much money to be made by the waste management companies and the environmentalists to put an end to the madness. people need to rethink the convenience of flushing their poo down the pipes. there should be a ban on sewers as well and each home should have a poo reactor or incinerator of some sort. the technology exists. think ahead
Cece Stein December 05, 2012 at 12:29 AM
We are very interested in the concept Hellwood, can you give us a list of cities that successfully use this Poo ReactorTechnology ( P.R.T )? Do the neighbors ever complain about the P.R.T. you have? I can't locate the EPA emission report of Poo Incinerators ( P.I. ) for urban areas. Would they be allowed in Class 5 Firezones ( C. 5 F. ) where smoking is not even allowed?
Cece Stein December 05, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Right now, as we speak, untreated runoff from the Malibu Colony shopping center complex parking lots and Malibu Road is draining directly through the one storm drain ( previously known as "The Mystery Drain" ), which is now a brand new 18 inch surface runoff drainage pipe owned by the City of Malibu, into the recently restored Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach. We witnessed these flows Sunday ( when the breach occurred ) on site at Malibu Lagoon. This pipe is supposed to be redirected into to the storm water treatment plant at the corner of Cross Creek and Civic Center Way for disinfection and treatment and then Legacy Park. The State uncovered many clay and concrete pipes that were directed into the Lagoon from Malibu Colony homes which are now severed from pouring directly into the Lagoon. The only pipes sanctioned to drain into the lagoon are from the State's Colony Swale and parking lot bio filtered pipes which are not visibly draining into the Lagoon. Oddly, a pipe that is the responsibility of the City of Malibu is pouring large amounts of pollutants into the newly restored and sensitive wildlife habitat. This is the same City that gave the State so much scrutiny and grief about lagoon water being discharged out of the Lagoon and out to sea via a complex, expensive disinfection. Yet, here they are blatantly violating public health and imperiling a sensitive habitat area. Just this past April, the City settled with over $6 million on their Clean Water Act violation.

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