Although beach season is officially over for most of the country, the debate over water quality along the Nation’s coastlines continues. Since 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended the same level of water quality to protect swimmers from bacteria that may be present in the water. In 2006, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued EPA for failure to implement the requirements of the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, aptly known as the BEACH Act. Among other things, the BEACH Act required EPA to conduct scientific studies to update the 1986 criteria with new or revised water quality levels designed to protect swimmers.
Many assumed that given the age of the existing criteria that these new studies would confirm that a more protective level of water quality was needed to reduce the occurrence of illness among swimmers. NACWA intervened in the NRDC case and helped to craft the 2008 settlement agreement that laid out a strict schedule and required actions for EPA. NACWA’s interest was to ensure that EPA had enough time to get the science right. Unfortunately, because of the tight deadlines that were insisted upon by NRDC and agreed to by EPA, the new scientific studies were handicapped from the start. EPA did not have time to explore use of better indicator bacteria and had to conduct the studies with what they were already using. When weather was uncooperative, EPA did not have time to conduct additional studies to fill data gaps. Nevertheless, EPA did amass a significant amount of data in the time they were given to determine what the new criteria should look like.
Based on the data it was able to collect, EPA made a strong statement in December 2011 when it published proposed revisions to the criteria, which maintained the same levels of water quality that were established in 1986. The new data that had been collected did not support a more stringent value. As expected, the environmental NGO community immediately raised objections, claiming that EPA was ignoring the science and was actually making the criteria less stringent. NRDC and others continue to urge EPA to make changes before the criteria are finalized later this year.
The data EPA could collect during the very short time period provided by NRDC in the litigation, however, showed no statistically significant relationship between levels of bacteria indicators and illness. In other words, the new data are insufficient to support any changes to the criteria values. EPA should be commended for proposing what the Agency believed to be the most supportable approach given the limited amount of time it was given.
EPA now has until November 30 to make the right decision and let the science dictate the final criteria.