August 1, 2008

S.C. Beaches Take a Hit From Water Quality Study

By James Rosen / McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - A prominent environmental group trashed South Carolina's beaches Tuesday, ranking their waters the sixth-most contaminated in the country.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control strongly disputed the findings of the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. It accused the environmental group of using incomplete or erroneous data.

Among 1,214 samples taken and tested at 22 beaches along the South Carolina coast last year, 13 percent had bacterial contamination exceeding the maximum safety level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the NRDC.

That figure was almost twice as high as the 7 percent national average, and it was much higher than the totals for neighboring North Carolina (2 percent) and Georgia (4 percent).

"South Carolina did notably worse than the rest of the Southeast in terms of the quality of its beach water," said Nancy Stoner, director of the environmental organization's clean water project. "Nationwide, we've had no improvement that we can find in addressing the sources of beach-water pollution and in cleaning up the beaches."

Lowest rankings on East Coast

South Carolina beaches had the lowest water-quality rankings among all 15 states bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

Nationwide, only the Great Lakes beaches of Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana - plus the Gulf Coast waters of Louisiana - were more contaminated last year, according to the NRDC.

Alaska, New Hampshire and Delaware had the country's cleanest beaches, the group said.

Eight of South Carolina's 10 most contaminated beaches are along the Grand Strand in Horry and Georgetown counties, the NRDC reported.

In Beaufort County, 18 percent of water samples taken last year at Harbor Island beach were contaminated; only 4 percent of the samples from Hilton Head Island were dirty.

Clair Boatwright, a DHEC spokeswoman, said the NRDC skewed its findings for South Carolina beach waters because it excluded key sampling data.

"South Carolina's beaches are clean," she said. "We monitor effectively to protect the public and provide warnings when warranted. Their percentages were in error and quite a bit higher than the actual data prove."

The bacteria measured in the EPA-funded tests cause stomach flu, rashes, respiratory illnesses, pinkeye and earaches. Elderly swimmers, children, pregnant women, cancer patients and people with impaired immune systems are especially vulnerable.

The tests measure the amount of enterococcus, a common type of bacteria in human and animal feces, in beach water.

A level above 104 "colony forming units" of enterococcus per 100 milliliters (one-tenth of a liter) is deemed unsafe by the EPA. The NRDC reports the percentage of beach-water samples that with higher concentrations of enterococcus.

Boatwright provided several examples of alleged false data from the environmental group:

* 11 percent of Beaufort County's Harbor Island samples were contaminated, not 18 percent as reported by the NRDC;

* 8 percent of Sullivan's Island samples in Charleston County had excessive bacteria levels, not 15 percent; and

* 1 percent of water samples from Isle of Palms were dirty, not 5 percent.

Boatwright said her staff couldn't produce corresponding data for water at the other 19 beaches cited by the environmental group in time for this article's publication.

The NRDC sued the EPA two years ago in a bid to impose even tougher bacterial standards on the nation's beach waters. The case is pending.

Stoner, with the environmental group, said most states in the Southeast experienced drought last summer, so that their beaches should have had fewer contaminated water samples.

At least one-third of beach-water contamination comes from animal fecal matter in storm runoff, so the water is often cleaner in drier years.

Among the state's six beachfront counties, Horry had the highest level of bad samples at 15 percent, followed by Charleston at 8 percent, Beaufort at 7 percent Colleton at 5 percent and Georgetown at 2 percent. Jasper County was not included because its beach is so small.

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