Regulators charged with protecting public health knew that bacteria had reached unsafe levels in the ocean on 45 different days along the Grand Strand last year, but they issued only two special advisories warning the public about the dangers of swimming in polluted seawater, records show.
Instead of notifying newspapers, television and other media, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control relied largely on 29 oceanfront signs in the Myrtle Beach area to get the word out. It’s part of a policy change at the department that in the past 10 years has led to a dramatic drop in special media advisories about surf pollution.
Agency officials say putting permanent signs on the beach is a better system than media advisories because beach-goers have a constant reminder of the dangers of swimming on parts of the Grand Strand that have regularly registered elevated bacteria levels after heavy rains. Those hot spots are primarily in the Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach areas.
“The best place to notify swimmers of problematic water is where the swimmer would enter that water,” agency spokesman Mark Plowden said in an email. “We don't want to simply hope the swimmers read the newspaper before they go to the beach or assume they may have watched a news broadcast. Warning signs onsite is a best practice.”
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But some question whether DHEC is doing enough. While agreeing that the signs are a good idea, some people also favor issuing special advisories when bacteria levels exceed safe swimming standards.
“They should do both,” said Surfside Beach retiree Joe Zoltak, who has written DHEC about water quality concerns in the community. “People are very complacent about these signs. I’ve seen children playing in the swashes near these signs.”
Unless a person is next to a sign, he or she might not notice the modest placard posted at a pipe or at a tidal inlet, he said. The DHEC signs say not to swim within 200 feet of a drainage pipe or tidal inlet after heavy rains, which increase harmful bacteria. The signs stretch from near North Myrtle Beach through much of Myrtle Beach and south through Surfside Beach. The locations also are posted on DHEC’s beachwater quality website, agency officials said.
Swimming in polluted seawater can increase a person’s chances of getting an upset stomach, sore throat or head cold. A 2009 federal study found that those who ducked their heads in the ocean at Surfside Beach had a “higher incidence” of skin rashes, earaches and gastrointestinal illnesses than non-swimmers.
Steve Fleischli, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said permanent signs and information on DHEC’s website are good efforts – but “the more notice the public can have the better. You make sure the word is getting out about these problems.”
The NRDC released an annual report last month showing that, in 2013, the Myrtle Beach area had unsafe levels of bacteria in the surf more often than any other part of South Carolina. While water quality is generally considered safe, heavy rains can send bacteria levels soaring to unsafe levels.
A NEW PRACTICE
After launching a beach water testing program in the late 1990s, DHEC issued regular advisories that were broadcast in the media when bacteria levels rose. But as the agency increasingly used signs warning of high bacteria levels, the number of special advisories dropped dramatically.
The department issued 195 advisories to the media a decade ago, a DHEC spokesman said. In 2013, the number had dropped to two. This year, the agency had issued one advisory as of last week. DHEC only issues advisories in places without permanent signs, spokesman Jim Beasley said.
Beaches without permanent signs are in Georgetown, Charleston, Colleton and Beaufort counties. Some stretches of Horry County beaches do not have signs. Special warnings would be issued in those areas if bacteria levels rose to unsafe levels in the surf.
Permanent signs were put in the Myrtle Beach-Surfside Beach area because those beaches have traditionally had problems with bacteria spikes, the result of ocean-flowing tidal inlets, storm drains and canals that channel runoff to the sea. Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach are working to remove seaside drainage pipes, but the process is expensive and time-consuming. At one time, about 150 pipes lined Horry County beaches.
Beasley emphasized that DHEC also posts the location of the permanent swimming advisory signs and the recent bacteria levels on its website, which allows people to see where water quality concerns have popped up. The most recent data at several spots, as of July 1, was for June 25. DHEC tests water quality weekly in the Myrtle Beach area.
In comparison to South Carolina, North Carolina issues warnings to the media anytime bacteria levels exceed federal safe swimming standards at major beaches. Warning signs also are posted immediately for higher pollution levels. At known problem spots, North Carolina will conduct multiple tests and post signs immediately if bacteria levels are high in two of three samples. In each case, when the levels drop, the signs are removed, said J.D. Potts, that state’s surf water testing program manager.
Potts said North Carolina has posted permanent signs at the handful of stormwater drains along the Outer Banks. The state tests at the pipes and at places down the beach to see if any contamination has drifted into that area, notifying the public when there is a water quality problem.
Some states send out water quality advisories through social media, such as Twitter.
DHEC data show that bacteria levels exceeded the federal safe swimming standard 223 times on the Grand Strand, compared to only 11 times in the Charleston and Hilton Head Island areas.
Records show elevated bacteria counts occurred in the Myrtle Beach area’s surf on 45 days from March through October, when swimmers are more likely to be in the ocean.
Last year, the highest single summertime bacteria levels occurred in the area of large campgrounds between Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach, DHEC’s data show.
Water quality tests recorded bacteria levels 83 times higher than the safe swimming standard at Pirateland Swash on July 2, 2013. Tests showed bacteria levels 72 times higher than the safe swimming standard at Ocean Lakes on July 23, 2013. The federal safe swimming standard is 104 colonies of enterococcus bacteria per 100 milliliters.
Both the Pirateland and Ocean Lakes areas have permanent signs warning against swimming within 200 feet of the signs after heavy rains, records show. DHEC’s only special advisories against swimming last year were in Myrtle Beach and Debordieu Beach, Beasley said.
Some of the most problematic pollution problems occur near tidal inlets that accept much of the stormwater from Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach. But pollution also pours from drainage pipes that sit directly on the beach, agency records show.