2006-08-18 / Community

Bacteria Levels 'OK' in '05, But Testing Runs Afoul

By Brian Magoolaghan

Bacteria levels at Rockaway's beaches fell within safety guidelines last year, but a national environmental organization says that's because testing doesn't occur when rain forces sewage overflow into bathing areas, according to a recent report.

Local beaches from Breezy Point to Beach 9 Street were consistently within acceptable bacteria levels during twice weekly testing last year in which a total of 90 samples were taken, according to the report issued August 3 by the Natural Resources Defense Council. But the report also charges that New York City beaches earn good grades because the city is not required to test after heavy rain, when sewage overflows at wastewater treatment plants flush bacteria into the open water.

"The pollution that fouls our beaches comes from sewers, septic systems and storm water runoff from roads and buildings," said Lisa Speer, director of NRDC's Water and Oceans Program. E. Coli - a bacteria strain seen that is responsible for more than 60 deaths per year in the United States - is commonly found in contaminated swimming water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - can be among the bacteria flushed into the water.

The group says that more than 70 percent of the city's 6,000 miles of sewer system is combined with storm water pipes, which allows for the discharge of raw sewage during and immediately after heavy rain. Three years ago, the city went from issuing a single press release on the dangers of swimming after heavy rain to a more proactive system in which the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene monitors rainfall levels and coordinates warnings with the Department of Parks and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over city beaches, the NRDC said.

"There's a lot more that government officials should be doing to guarantee that a day at the beach does not become a night in the bathroom, or worse, in the hospital," Speer said. The NRDC says beach water quality standards are outdated and rely on "obsolete" monitoring methods and science.

"There have been significant advances over the last two decades that we should be using to protect beachgoers," said Nancy Stoner, director of the NRDC's Clean Water Project. "But the Environmental Protection Agency is dragging its feet in implementing them." The group said it was suing the EPA for failing to modernize under congressional order.

To view the complete report, go to www.NRDC.org

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