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Groups File Notice of Intent to Sue EPA for Failure to Protect Beachgoers from Water Pollution


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Press contact: Sean Dixon, Clean Ocean Action 732-872-0111, [email protected]
Tina Posterli, Riverkeeper 516-526-9371, [email protected]
Matt King, Heal the Bay, 310-451-1500 ext. 137, [email protected]
Blair Fitzgibbon, Waterkeeper Alliance, 202-503-6141, [email protected]

EPA’s new water quality criteria fail to protect human health as required by the BEACH Act.

NEW YORK, N.Y. (June 20, 2013) – The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to meet its legal responsibility to adopt water quality criteria that address the health threat posed by pollution at U.S. beaches, according to a notice of intent to sue filed by a coalition of local and national organizations concerned about beach water quality. The groups are Clean Ocean Action, Hackensack Riverkeeper, Heal the Bay, Natural Resources Defense Council, NY/NJ Baykeeper, Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.

“Too many of America’s beaches are sick – and they’re passing on their illnesses to families across the country,” said Steve Fleischli, Water Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But EPA is not doing its job to help make sure we are safe when our families head to the beach.”

More than 180 million people visit coastal and Great Lakes beaches every year, and swimming and surfing are favorite pastimes in the United States. But beach closings due to hazardous contamination remain near all-time highs. In 2011, there were over 23,000 beach closing and health advisory days across the country. More than two-thirds of the closing and advisory days were prompted by dangerously high bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. The underlying culprits are generally improperly treated sewage, animal manure and contaminated stormwater runoff, which have a highly deleterious effect on water quality.

This pollution poses a significant threat to public health. Pathogens in contaminated waters can cause a wide range of diseases – including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, and respiratory illness. However, despite these risks, EPA’s latest actions fail to protect people who choose to recreate in coastal waters. EPA has estimated that up to 3.5 million people become ill annually from contact with either overflow of overburdened sewage treatment plants during storm events, leakage from faulty infrastructure, or inappropriate sewage treatment.

“A day at the beach should never make someone sick,” said Kirsten James, Science and Policy Director for Water Quality at Heal the Bay. “EPA missed a major opportunity and a legal mandate to upgrade its recreational water quality criteria to better protect the public from the dangers of polluted water at U.S. beaches. This must be corrected.”

In 2000, Congress enacted the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), requiring EPA to modernize criteria for water quality that would protect beach users from illnesses caused by pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria. EPA updated these criteria in 2012. However, EPA’s 2012 criteria are inadequate and fail to protect public health in several ways:

  • EPA’s criteria fail to protect against single day exposures to pathogens.
  • EPA now allows water quality samples to exceed contamination levels EPA has determined are unsafe up to 10% of the time without triggering a violation. This approach could mask a serious pollution problem and expose families to an unnecessary risk of illness from recreating in local waterways.
  • EPA’s new criteria also fail to address the risk of non-gastrointestinal illnesses – such as rash and ear infections – that result from recreating in contaminated waters. The agency concluded that addressing stomach illnesses would adequately protect the public from other types of ailments.
  • EPA’s criteria permit a level of risk that would result in 36 of every 1000 beachgoers becoming ill with vomiting, nausea, or stomachaches. This level of risk is unacceptably high.
  • “Swimmers deserve to know that their favorite beach is clean on the day they’re using it. It doesn’t matter to them one bit what the average water quality was a month ago,” said Captain Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper. “New Jersey discharges 23 billion gallons of sewage per year from permitted sewer overflows. Sometimes our waters are clean, sometimes they are dangerous; we are not safe unless we know which is true on a daily basis.”

    “The New York-New Jersey Harbor has seen both increasing recreational use and increasing impacts from disease causing pollution,” said Deborah A. Mans, the NY/NJ Baykeeper. “We need EPA to let people know when the water is safe and to punish polluters when it is not. A monthly standard just does not protect public health.”

    “EPA’s criteria is doubly flawed because it not only assumes that is acceptable for 36 of every 1000 people to contract gastro-intestinal illness by recreating in contaminated water, an unacceptably high number; it also ignores the proven risk of other health impacts, from rashes to eye and ear infections that routinely plague swimmers in our waterways,” said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director for Riverkeeper. “People recreating in the Hudson River must be protected with strict standards, utilizing the best science to truly protect public health rather than the EPA’s status quo.”

    “Science-based criteria for pathogens in recreational waters are the cornerstone of the Clean Water Act’s protections against widespread pollution by animal manure and human sewage and are essential to protecting people that swim and fish in our nation’s waterways from pathogenic illness,” said Kelly Foster, Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “EPA has adopted criteria that do not protect the public from disease when swimming and fishing, make it more difficult to reduce or eliminate pathogens from our recreational waters, and do not adequately inform the public about the risk they face when deciding to go to the beach. Without adequate recreational criteria, the Clean Water Act simply cannot function to adequately protect us from disease when swimming at our nation’s beaches and recreational waters.”

    “The beaches, boardwalks, and bays of the nation drive billion-dollar coastal economies,” said Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action, “having clean, safe beaches where parents, children, tourists, locals, surfers, and fishermen can enjoy a day at the beach without a day at the doctor’s is the keystone condition for these clean coastal economies. The EPA has failed in its duty to protect beachgoers using the best science, and has failed to develop a system that warns the public of health risks before they happen – not several days or weeks later.”

    Clean Ocean Action is a coalition-based non-profit organization working to improve and protect the water quality of the marine waters off the New Jersey and New York coasts. Follow us @CleanOcean or online through

    Hackensack Riverkeeper is a non-profit corporation organized to provide representation for the living resources of the Hackensack River. Hackensack Riverkeeper runs boat tours and operates a paddling center on the Hackensack River in the Meadowlands, and has its offices in Hackensack New Jersey. Captain Bill Sheehan founded Hackensack Riverkeeper fifteen years ago.

    Heal the Bay is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Santa Monica Bay and all southern California coastal waters and watersheds. Progress toward the mission is achieved by effectively combining the use of science, advocacy, community outreach, and public education to create positive environmental change. For over two decades, Heal the Bay has been effective in cleaning up polluted waterbodies, including freshwater and coastal waters, to better protect the health of the public and aquatic life throughout the Los Angeles region.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

    NY/NJ Baykeeper is a non-profit corporation working to protect, preserve, and restore the ecological integrity and productivity of the New York/ New Jersey Bay. Baykeeper conducts restoration programs, especially oyster restoration, in both New York and New Jersey waters, works to acquire land for preservation and advocates for clean water throughout its coverage area – extending from Sandy Hook, New Jersey through Jamaica Bay Queens. Debbie Mans is the NY/NJ Baykeeper.

    Riverkeeper is a membership-based, non-profit group dedicated to defending the Hudson River and its tributaries and protecting the drinking water supply of New York City and Hudson Valley residents. Through enforcement, grassroots advocacy and policy initiatives Riverkeeper has helped to establish globally recognized standards for waterway and watershed protection, and serves as the model for the growing Waterkeeper movement that includes nearly 200 Keeper programs across the country and around the globe. For more information please go to

    Waterkeeper Alliance is an international alliance of water advocates working to patrol and protect rivers, streams, and coastlines around the world. Waterkeeper Alliance represents the interests of over 200 member watershed organizations providing a way for communities to stand up for their right to clean water. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @Waterkeeper.

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