The New York Times
A report on water quality at the nation’s beaches has found that the number of closings and advisories from contamination concerns at New York State beaches rose sharply last year. It also warns that a new standard proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency could inadequately protect beachgoers.
The report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, called “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches” and released on Wednesday, found that a confluence of events — heavy rainfall, Hurricane Irene and a fire at a sewage treatment plant on the Hudson River in Harlem — had contributed to increased contamination of area beaches.
The number of days that New York beaches posted closings or swim advisories nearly doubled from the previous year. Beach closings and warnings nearly quadrupled in Connecticut for the same period, while edging up slightly in New Jersey. The fire alone discharged 200 hundred millions gallons of raw sewage into New York area waters.
Because the city’s sewer system has both storm water and waste traveling through it, even moderate rainfall can overwhelm treatment plants, spewing waste directly into the waterways.
“In New York City, that adds up to 30 billion gallons of sewage mixed with storm runoff” a year, said Larry Levine, senior attorney for the organization, adding that climate models for New York predict that warming temperatures will yield higher rainfall.
The findings in New York were in line with the national picture, which showed heavy rains causing sewage pollution and storm water runoff and prompting the third-highest number of closing and advisory days since the group began tracking recreational water more than 20 years ago.
The findings also come as the E.P.A., which sets federal standards for water quality, is revising the criteria for acceptable levels of bacterial contamination before an advisory is recommend. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, under the proposed standards, the agency would deem safe recreational waters with bacteria levels sufficient to cause 1 in 28 swimmers to become sick with gastrointestinal illnesses that can lead to diarrhea and vomiting. At Coney Island, which draws 120,000 visitors on a busy day, that could mean 4,285 people at risk of becoming ill — assuming they all went in the water.
Under the current standard, gastrointestinal illnesses are not counted unless they are accompanied by a fever. And the E.P.A. allows for a degree of bacterial contamination, but those standards, the council argues, are based on an outdated understanding of the full health risks.
The E.P.A. disputed the council’s assessment, saying in a statement that the agency’s draft criteria would “protect more than 99 percent of swimmers from gastrointestinal illnesses” and that it was developed to safeguard the public from a “more broadly defined set” of illnesses. The council said in a statement that the environmental agency “was missing a critical opportunity to better protect beachgoers.”
The council also called on municipalities to install protections like porous pavements and plantings along sidewalks to help capture storm water. In March, New York City committed to spend $2.4 billion in public and private money over 18 years for those kinds of protections.
At 224 of New York’s 372 beaches, there were 1,841 closing and advisory days last year. That was a 93 percent increase from 956 such days in 2010, a relatively clean year for state beaches.
The report showed that despite gains in water quality under the federal Clean Water Act, aging sewer systems hindered improvement. “While there’s been tremendous progress in cleaning up our waterways around the country, one of the biggest remaining problems is pollution associated with storm water runoff, which is episodic and linked to rain events,” Mr. Levine said.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 28, 2012, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Sharp Rise in New York Beach Closings Is Found.