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Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program

1999 Beach Testing Press Release


Contact: Dr. Joseph Costa

Phone: (508) 291-3625

July 2, 1999

See announcement letter to Boards of Health

Bay Project provides funds for beach testing and finding pollution sources

Wareham - The Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program has announced that it is providing $20,000 to assist area Boards of Health to perform additional testing of water quality at freshwater and coastal bathing beaches, and to help municipalities identify upstream sources of pollution contributing to shellfish bed closures.

According to Buzzards Bay NEP Executive Director Dr. Joe Costa, "some towns test their beaches once a week, or once every two weeks because of a shortage of funds or manpower. We want to give towns the opportunity to better understand how coliform levels relate to heavy rains, to perform additional testing on freshwater ponds, as well as to try a new water quality indicator test recommended for beaches. The monitoring can also be used to identify upstream sources of contamination causing shellfish bed closures." To accomplish these goals, the Buzzards Bay NEP has set up accounts with the New Bedford Health Department Laboratory, and the Barnstable County Department for Health and the Environment laboratory to test water samples collected by both town officials, and in some instances, trained volunteers. The service will be provided free to the towns

Dr. Costa noted that there are no national standards for water quality monitoring at bathing beaches. States differ as to what bacterial indicator should be monitored, how often beaches should be monitored, or even what level of contamination is acceptable. In Massachusetts, state regulations require beach testing every two weeks but do not spell out when beaches should be closed. Rather they merely state that if contaminant levels exceed 1000 total coliform bacteria, "additional investigation" is required, but does not mandate a beach closure at these levels. In contrast, shellfish beds are closed when mean fecal coliform counts remain above 14 fecal coliform per 100 milliliters. Municipal Boards of Health are authorized to undertake this monitoring, but in some towns, Public Works departments may do the testing. It is believed that not all municipalities rigorously monitor all their salt and freshwater beaches, and many private beaches may go untested. In the past, even when high counts were found, local officials were reluctant to close beaches because they felt the threat had passed if it was associated with a heavy rainfall and road runoff. This is because bacterial levels often return to normal at these beaches after one to several days, and some towns may not receive the results from laboratories for many days to a week. Consequently they seldom close these problem areas. Local officials may also view beach closures as bad publicity for the town or bad for tourism.

On a national level the situation is changing, legislation is now pending before Congress that would require the US EPA to develop national standards for beach testing and closures. In Massachusetts legislation was also introduced that would strengthen beach testing standards. Many states are abandoning the fecal coliform and total coliform tests in favor of the "Enterococci bacteria" test which is believed to better correlate with skin diseases and intestinal ailments that can result from swimming in contaminated waters. The EPA is encouraging the use of this new standard as well. According to Costa, the Project will pay for the new Enterococci test alongside the usual fecal coliform test that some towns are solely employing. The Project is also encouraging towns to consider what has already been adopted in some states--automatic rainfall related advisories or closures in areas prone to very high fecal coliform counts after heavy rains such as certain ponds and certain poorly flushed coastal bays with runoff problems.

Dr. Costa stressed that "most of our coastal beaches have very good water quality and are well flushed with clean offshore waters, and are very safe to swim in. The new testing requirements will not close these beaches. But with this summer's warm weather, some freshwater ponds can be expected to have higher than normal fecal coliforms, and with our drought conditions, the next heavy rain may elevate considerably fecal bacteria concentrations in poorly flushed bays prone to high coliforms after heavy rains. In these environments, exposure to pathogens often can be greatly minimized if bathing is avoided for at least 24 hours after the heavy rain."

Towns may also use the monitoring to work with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to establish rainfall conditional closures in eligible areas that are now permanently closed during the summer. The Project will also allow beach associations and citizen groups such as the Coalition for Buzzards Bay to participate in the program. More information about this water quality testing program can be found at the Buzzards Bay NEP's website,