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What Lies Beneath Our Beaches

August is traditionally a month spent at the beach. But travelers beware: the water you're swimming in may not be so clean. Fortunately, in April, the Environmental Protection Agency began enforcing compliance with the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 across the United States. Under the BEACH Act, part of the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act, coastal states (including those along the Great Lakes) are required to meet federal standards for monitoring water quality.

The EPA's vigilance comes none too soon, say environmental groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). Earlier this year, the EIP reported an alarming lack of standards in monitoring and notifying the public, specifically within the Great Lakes region—a reflection of inconsistent practices throughout the country. The EIP found that three of the states surrounding the Great Lakes had not yet adopted the EPA's water-testing system; Michigan, meanwhile, allowed swimmers into water with E. coli levels that exceeded EPA-suggested guidelines. Under the Clean Water Act, states are given some flexibility in how they protect their coastal regions, but Ilan Levin, author of the EIP report, finds the lack of a federal standard inexcusable. "There's no reason a person should be more protected in one state than in another," Levin says.

In recent months, even states renowned for their beaches, such as Hawaii and California, have received notices asking them to augment their monitoring programs. However, the BEACH Act still has some significant flaws. First, though the EPA recommends weekly bacteria testing of beaches, it doesn't yet mandate it. The lag-time in receiving test results is also at least 24 hours—a day too late for many beachgoers who may be swimming in water full of agricultural pollutants or sewage. Some activists even question the EPA's fundamental ability to enforce the act. "We haven't seen the EPA use strong methods," says Levin. "I'm not sure if they'll follow through."

The EPA contends that the BEACH Act is a significant step in preventing pollution. Jim Pendergast, branch chief of health protection and modeling in the EPA's Office of Water, says the act will offer a clearer portrait of what causes beach pollution—and when. "Rather than react to closings, we'll be able to predict them." But activists such as Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, point out that the main causes of water contamination—storm water runoff and aging sewer systems—are already well known. Says Stoner: "It's time for the government to minimize the sources."

There were 12,000 beach closings and advisories in 2002, the last year for which figures are available. Stoner expects this year to be even worse. To check on the status of your favorite beach, visit the EPA's beach Web site (www.epa.gov/beaches).

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