At a press conference at one of Boston Harbor’s most popular beaches, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a $257,000 grant to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to improve and expand the water quality monitoring and public notification programs at state coastal beaches.
Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office, made the announcement at Carson Beach, one of more than 500 coastal beaches in Massachusetts sampled regularly by the state’s beach monitoring program to ensure that swimming conditions are safe. More than 7,000 water samples were collected and analyzed last summer alone. Six years ago, the state was collecting water samples at only 325 coastal beach locations.
The EPA funding was made available through EPA’s Clean New England Beaches Initiative, which is making a total of $1.2 million available this summer to the region’s five coastal states.
Across New England last year, about one fifth of the region’s 1,300 coastal beaches were closed at least one day last summer due to pollution, for a total of about 1,100 missed beach days. That’s a tangible improvement from 2001, when the region’s saltwater beaches had nearly 1,400 beach closure days.
In Massachusetts last summer, the number of beach day closures at saltwater beaches fell from 647 in 2001 to 559 last year. Among the beaches that have seen water quality improvements is Carson Beach, where 6% of the samples last summer exceeded bacteria-based pollution standards, compared to 11 percent in 2001.
"We’ve made progress cleaning our waters in Boston Harbor and across New England, but there are still too many days in the summer when families cannot swim due to poor water quality," said Varney, speaking at today’s news conference. "Especially in heavily urbanized areas like Carson Beach, we must work to eliminate dirty storm water runoff and other pollution that leads to unhealthy swimming conditions."
"Swimming in water with microbial contamination can have real health consequences," added Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Christine Ferguson. "Beach water quality is regulated to protect public health and we welcome EPA's support and partnership with us in this overall effort to protect the health of Massachusetts residents."
EPA has awarded Massachusetts $834,000 since 2001 to support and expand the state’s beach monitoring programs. The funding was made possible by the Federal Beach Act approved by Congress in 2000.
Launched two summers ago, EPA’s Clean New England Beaches Initiative selected 11 flagship beaches across New England, including Wollaston Beach in Quincy, Ryder Street Beach in Provincetown and Salem’s city beaches. The beaches were chosen as models for other beach managers and are based on several criteria: serving large populations; a history of beach closures due to pollution; high quality monitoring already in place; and a strong potential for state and federal resources to be used.
Over the past several years, water quality at all of these Flagship beaches have improved. At Wollaston Beach, for example, the number of samples that exceeded the bacteria standard declined from 15% in 2001 to 11% last summer. At Salem’s Willows Pier Beach, the percentage of samples that exceeded the standard declined from 24 percent in 2001 to eight percent in 2003. This improvement can be attributed to the use of best management practices by the city of Salem to reduce storm water discharges near the beach.
Varney also praised the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – specifically, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority – for proposing a project in South Boston, near Carson Beach, that would eliminate virtually all storm water discharges and combined sewer overflow discharges that have a direct impact on Carson Beach water quality after rainstorms and other wet-weather conditions.
"Storm water and CSOs have long been a problem at Carson Beach, but now there’s a solution in sight that will lead to tangible improvements," Varney said.
Polluted runoff and untreated sewage released into the water can contain bacteria, viruses, and protozoans, some of which can cause minor illnesses such as gastroenteritis or more serious diseases such as hepatitis. Runoff can be contaminated from pet waste, wildlife, illicit connections and various other sources. Sources of sewage include leaking sewer pipes, failing septic systems, boats and combined sewer overflows.