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Emily Figdor,
Environment Maine

Maine DEP Urged to Come Clean about Beach Water Safety

New data shows Penobscot Bay and York County beaches most at risk for poor water quality. East End Beach in Portland cited for significant improvement
For Immediate Release

(PORTLAND)  Environment Maine released new beach water safety data today and called on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to better inform the public when pollution levels violate the state’s own health standard.

“Clean beaches are not only part of summertime fun, but they are also critical to our health, as well as to Maine’s tourism and fishing economies,” stated Emily Figdor, Director of Environment Maine. “The public has a right to know when the water is safe and clean and when it’s not.  That’s why I was astounded to hear the false and misleading statements made by the Department of Environmental Protection last week.”

The Maine DEP issued a press release last Friday stating definitively that beach managers will post an advisory or a closure notice when bacteria levels exceed established health standards.  Based on that assurance, the announcement stated that more than two-thirds of Maine beaches had no water quality issues in 2011. 

Figdor took issue with the guarantee that an advisory would be issued and the resulting conclusion about safety levels.  New data show that 40 of the 61 beaches that actively monitored their pollution levels in 2011 violated the Maine’s health standard at least once last summer, but only 18 beaches ever posted a health advisory.  Some beaches violated the health standard numerous times but only issued a handful of advisories. 

“By first keeping the public in the dark and now actively misleading the public about beach water quality, the LePage administration threatens to damage Maine’s economy and credibility.  If people don’t trust us when we say our beaches are clean, they won’t visit our beaches,” said Figdor.

Environment Maine, an advocacy organization with more than 14,000 members and supporters statewide, released the Maine-specific data from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 22nd annual beach water report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches.” 

Overall, Maine was ranked 20th out of 30 coastal states for beach water quality.  Maine’s beach water quality has remained largely unchanged over the past five years, with eight percent of beach water samples statewide violating the health standard in 2011, compared to 9 percent in 2010, 10 percent in 2009, 6 percent in 2008, and 8 percent in 2007. 

Tuesday’s release highlighted the beaches in Maine with the worst and the best water quality, as well as those that are making improvements.  Beaches in Penobscot Bay and York County suffered from the highest rate of violations of the state’s health standard for bacteria.  

“Our nation’s seashores continue to suffer from storm water runoff and sewage pollution that can make people sick and harm coastal economies,” stated Melissa Waage of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “Luckily, today more than ever, we know that much of this filth is preventable, and we can turn the tide against water pollution. By establishing better beach water quality standards and putting untapped 21st century solutions in place – we can make a day at the beach as carefree as it should be, and safeguard America’s vital tourism economies.”

Environment Maine was joined by parents who want timely and accurate information about when beach water is too polluted for their children to swim. 

Luke Sunde, a father living in Portland who brings his young son to East End Beach stated, “My beach bag includes a pail and a shovel, not a water testing kit.  Parents are counting on good information from Maine biologists and the Maine DEP on whether our beach water is safe.  That means posting health warnings every time bacteria counts exceed safe levels.  No parent wants to see a day at the beach turn into a night at the hospital.”

Beach water pollution causes a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers, including stomach flu, skin rashes, ear and eye infections, hepatitis, neurological disorders, and other serious health problems.

East End Beach in Portland was highlighted as an example of the enormous progress that can be made in improving beach water quality.  Once a foul-smelling beach that was closed in the 1970s, today’s East End Beach water is average but much improved since steps have been taken to reduce storm water runoff and the accompanying sewer overflows that carry harmful pollutants into Casco Bay.

“Maine’s tourism and fishing industries combined bring well over a billion dollars a year into Maine’s economy,” said Joe Payne, Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne of Friends of Casco Bay. “If we don’t invest in our future and clean up our water, we will see more sewage overflows, more swimmers getting sick, and our natural resource based economy will falter.  Maine people deserve a more comprehensive beach testing program so everyone in the state will know if their beaches are safe.”

This year, Testing the Waters identifies a critical action that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can take to better protect people at the beach.  Specifically, the EPA should reconsider its proposed recommended standards for beach water quality, which leave beachgoers inadequately protected and unnecessarily exposed to dangerous pathogens in the water.

The report includes a guide for how everyone can takes steps at home, no matter where they live, to help make Maine’s beach water safer.  This includes reducing storm water runoff from your home or business, such as by putting rain barrels under drainage pipes and planting rain gardens. 

“Maine’s clean coastal water is one of the things that make us unique,” stated Phil Kronenthal of the Black Point Inn in Scarborough. “It’s a tremendous economic advantage for our state.  We must all take action to protect this resource that is so central to our economy and our way of life.”

Figdor added, “The LePage administration should stop the political spin and start telling the truth about when beaches are safe and when they’re not.  Tourists, families, and businesses want facts, not a false sense of security.  Officials should start immediately notifying the public whenever pollution levels violate the health standard.  The Maine Healthy Beaches Program is doing a lot of things right so we’re optimistic that we can get back on track.”

The full “Testing the Waters” report can be found at http://www.nrdc.org/beaches.

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“Testing the Waters” is a national report that spotlights the state of our nation’s beaches, revealing which beaches have pollution problems and which tested clean. It provides an easy-to-use, interactive map with zip code search functionality to make it easier for people to check out how the water quality at their favorite beach compares to others.

Environment Maine is a statewide, citizen-based environmental education and advocacy organization.  For more information on Environment Maine, go to www.environmentmaine.org