SC ranks poorly in beach water quality report

File photo
File photo The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News

Surf pollution continues to trouble the Myrtle Beach area as the glittery coastal resort works to remove drainage pipes that for decades have carried contaminated runoff to the ocean where people swim.

A national report released Wednesday found that beaches along the Grand Strand failed more often to meet a federal safe swimming standard for ocean water than other parts of the coast – and that contributed heavily to the state’s low national ranking for beach water quality.

Overall, South Carolina beaches ranked seventh worst in the country for water quality, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 24th annual study. In the South, only Louisiana and Mississippi failed a higher percentage of the time to meet a national bacteria standard for safe swimming than South Carolina, the environmental group’s report said.

Statistics show that 15 percent of the water quality samples taken in South Carolina last summer exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended standard for safe swimming. Nationally, 10 percent of the samples taken exceeded the standard, the NRDC said.

But on the Grand Strand, about 20 percent of the 1,538 water samples taken in 2013 exceeded the EPA’s standard, according to data in the report. That standard is 60 colonies of enterococcus bacteria per 100 milliliters, a level meant to protect human health. The EPA is urging states to warn swimmers when the standard is exceeded.

The report was based on a new and tougher EPA standard, but South Carolina’s showing in the report is about the same as last year’s under the old standard, according to both the NRDC and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The report reinforces where the state has previously ranked among other states.

Critics said they’re not surprised by the results and called for more more aggressive action to protect the surf in a state that depends so heavily on coastal tourism. But several Grand Strand leaders reacted hotly to the report.

The city of Myrtle Beach questioned whether the NRDC had collected all the data needed to conclude that the community fared worse than others, saying some information appears to have been left out of the report. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce blasted the NRDC for unfairly scaring vacationers when the ocean is clean most of the time.

“The NRDC’s alarmist approach exhibits inconsistent and unreliable tendencies, which leads to sensationalized findings,” according to a statement from Brad Dean, the chamber’s president.

Jon Devine, a senior water attorney with the national environmental group, said his organization is merely presenting public data from the state and federal governments.

NRDC officials said beach contamination occurs from “urban slobber” – polluted runoff and sewage leaks that get into the ocean or the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes region had the highest number of problems in the report, while the East Coast had the fewest. The study examined beaches in 30 states.

In South Carolina, Myrtle Beach and some surrounding communities historically have piped stormwater directly onto beaches and into ocean-bound tidal inlets, mostly from an estimated 150 drainage pipes. That has at times caused bacteria levels to soar beyond federally recommended standards for safe swimming.

Children sometimes play in small creeks of drainage water that wash into the sea, raising questions about whether the contaminated runoff could make them sick. But elevated pollution levels also have been found in the surf, as well as in drainage creeks. A 2009 federal epidemiological study at Surfside Beach noted a higher incidence of gastrointestinal illnesses and earaches for swimmers in the ocean that summer than for non-swimmers.

Dean acknowledged runoff can cause spikes in bacteria counts. But he said the concern has been overblown.

“It is true that stormwater runoff can occasionally boost test levels higher than normal, but it is for limited sites for a limited amount of time,” Dean’s statement continued. “The Grand Strand’s beaches are clean, safe and here for the enjoyment of both our visitors and our residents.”

Despite Dean’s perspective, health concerns and the negative image of polluted stormwater have prompted Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach to begin replacing some of the drainage pipes associated with surf pollution. Both cities have spent millions of dollars to run polluted stormwater offshore, away from the surf zone where people swim.

In Myrtle Beach, for instance, the city replaced about 15 stormwater pipes when it completed a $20 million program to run the drainage offshore, city spokesman Mark Kruea said. The city plans another $10 million project this fall, he said.

Joe Zoltak, a Surfside Beach resident, said the Grand Strand needs to move more aggressively to resolve what he called a notable stormwater problem. That’s particularly a concern at Surfside Beach, where large drainage canals continue to push polluted stormwater into the sea, he said.

“This is a disgrace,” he said of the the Grand Strand’s stormwater problem and its deliberate pace to fix it. “The local politicians tend to ignore the issue, always blaming it on money. We need to stop ignoring it.”

The NRDC’s report relied on a new, more restrictive federal standard than in past years, but officials also looked at how states would fare under the old one, and the trend remained the same. That means South Carolina would have remained in the lower tier of states even under the previous water quality standard. The new standard is important to use, the NRDC said, because it is more protective of people who want to go swimming.

Statewide, the NRDC’s report found fewer instances of elevated bacteria counts in Beaufort and Charleston counties than in the Myrtle Beach area. Only 2 percent of the water quality samples taken at Hilton Head Island failed to meet the federal standard, the report said. Charleston County beaches also were below the state’s 15 percent average, with only Sullivan’s Island approaching that number.

In contrast, monitoring sites in the city of Myrtle Beach exceeded the standard 23 percent of the time. Just south of the city, the standard was exceeded 32 percent of the time, according to the data.

Kruea questioned the data for the city, saying the reports shows only one monitoring site, when there are actually about a dozen. That, he said, could skew the percentages. But Devine said his organization shared data in its report with DHEC and made changes that DHEC suggested before publishing the document.