New data warns visitors to South Carolina beaches of potential dangers in the ocean waters that could make them sick and sometimes lead to beach closures during the summer swimming season.
South Carolina beaches rank among the worst overall in the nation for bacteria in the water, a study out this week by the National Resource Defense Council, a national non-profit environmental organization, concludes.
The worst four beaches in the state were all located along the Grand Strand in Horry County — where bacteria levels at each beach exceeded the state’s standard more than 10 percent of the time.
Officials from Myrtle Beach and its chamber of commerce contested the way the NRDC compared data and defended their popular beaches as both safe and clean.
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“Our beaches are healthy and suitable for all beach goers,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. “And the local tests are generally within acceptable ranges for most parts of the Myrtle Beach area.”
Myrtle Beach State Park and Campgrounds exceeded rates of the daily maximum standard for bacteria levels 20 percent of the time in 2012, according to the report Testing the Waters 2013, which studied water quality at vacation beaches along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico.
Surfside Beach exceeded levels 19 percent of the time, followed by Myrtle Beach at 17 percent and North Myrtle Beach at 11 percent.
Ingesting or contact with bacteria can lead to dysentery, hepatitis, stomach flu, infections or rashes, which can especially attack children or elderly with weaker immune systems. Children are also more at risk because they’re more likely to dunk their heads under water or swallow water, said Jon Devine, the NRDC senior water attorney.
“It’s obviously not great if any beach is violating public health standards at all, much less with a relative high percentage of the samples taken,” Devine said.
The NRDC analyzed monitoring data taken by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which administers beach water-quality testing prioritized by level of use and past testing history.
The method that DHEC uses to test water quality near beaches is weighted to find bacteria excesses — which is a good thing because it keeps people from swimming at unsafe times when bacteria levels are high — but it looks worse when compared to other beaches on a national scope, Dean said.
“The DHEC reports indicate that storm water runoff does occasionally boost test levels higher than normal but those are for limited sites and for very limited times,” Dean said. “It’s not the entire Grand Strand.
“Given the size of the Myrtle Beach area and the scope of oceanfront it covers, there is no fair comparison provided by the NRDC report in part because you’re talking about such an expansive area,” Dean said.
Lindsey Evans, a DHEC spokeswoman, said the agency agrees with the data summaries contained in the NRDC report, but noted that the state samples beaches that “have the highest potential for pollution more frequently than others.”
“The state of South Carolina will continue to monitor beaches in a responsible manner that provides the greatest protection practical to the beach-going public,” Evans said.
The NRDC gives credit to South Carolina because it does test more often in highly used beaches and in places where previous violations have occurred, Devine said.
“Those are great practices that we want to encourage because people do swim near outfalls, they swim after a rainstorm,” Devine said. “So those are health-protective things to do.”
But, he said, more needs to be done to limit storm water runoff to protect swimmers at beaches across the country.
Sources of beach pollution include storm water runoff; human waste from sewage and septic systems and human waste from boats; agricultural, pet and wildlife waste runoff; increased rainfall due to climate change; marine debris and plastic litter.
Also at issue is a federal illness risk rating system that the NRDC says allows too many people to get sick after a swim.
The Environmental Protection Agency revised its allowable sickness risk rate, required under the Beach Act, last November to a rate the NRDC argues is too lax and allows one in 28 people to get a stomach bug after swimming in the ocean.
“That number seems too high, to think that one kid out of every school class that goes to the beach could get sick,” said Steve Fleischli, water program director at NRDC.
The NRDC filed on June 20 a notice of intent to sue the EPA to strengthen its allowable bacteria and sickness rates. The EPA hasn’t yet filed a response.
On a county level, Horry County had the highest rate of tests that exceeded the maximum daily standard in 2012 at 15 percent, followed by Beaufort at 6 percent, Colleton at 2 percent and Georgetown at 1 percent.
Charleston County had the cleanest beaches. Less than 1 percent of samples taken at beaches in Charleston County exceeded the standard, according to the report.
Dean said officials didn’t anticipate any falloff in summer tourism due to the report but that it does bring questions and a challenge to Myrtle Beach to explain how testing works and what results show.
“We don’t anticipate any visitors to be scared away by the slant of the NRDC, but we do anticipate questions from the report,” he said.
City of Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said he’s already fielded questions from visitors on the beach concerned about the report’s findings.
“Yes, I’ve had a phone call from a worried vacationer,” Kruea said.
Kruea criticized the report as alarmist in nature and said it is impossible to compare beaches in South Carolina to ones elsewhere in the country because each state has its own system of water monitoring and its own set of issues that could cause water pollution.
“What is a problem on a beach in California isn’t a problem here,” Kruea said. “And yet you’re sort of lumping all beaches into the same category.”
South Carolina ranked 26th of 30 states analyzed. Maine, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio ranked below South Carolina. Delaware was given the top ranking in the 2013 report, followed by New Hampshire and North Carolina.
The main challenge for Grand Strand beaches is storm water runoff, which is an issue at most beaches but is compounded by the long stretch of flat coastline, Kruea said.
Myrtle Beach has built three deep-water ocean outfalls, which collect runoff in a giant undersea pipe and delivers it beyond the Myrtle Beach breakers, he said.
Construction of a fourth outfall will begin in September, he said.
Dean said the chamber is a proponent of the beach water management program the city of Myrtle Beach has undertaken, including performing its own year-round testing in addition to the state monitoring.
South Carolina monitoring started May 15 and runs through Oct. 15. DHEC takes samples in water that’s 20 to 40 inches deep, 12 inches below the surface. DHEC takes a sanitary survey to determine potential sources of human sewage pollution every time it samples a beach.
South Carolina deliberately samples at swashes and outfalls where water quality is expected to be poorest, the report states. DHEC samples more frequently at beaches where water quality has fallen below the standard.
Beaches in South Carolina were closed 11 days in 2012, an increase from 10 days in 2011. North Myrtle Beach was closed four days, Garden City Beach was closed three days, Harbor Island was closed twice and Edisto Island and Hilton Head Island were each closed one day.
Beaches with samples that exceeded the state standard include:
Myrtle Beach State Park and campgrounds: 20 percent
Surfside Beach: 19 percent
Myrtle Beach: 17 percent
North Myrtle Beach: 11 percent
Arcadia Beach: 9 percent
Briarcliffe Acres Beach: 9 percent
Harbor Island: 9 percent
Hilton Head Island: 6 percent
Hunting Island: 6 percent
Garden City Beach: 5 percent
Edisto Island: 2 percent
Fripp Island: 2 percent
Isle of Palms: 0 percent
Kiawah Island: 0 percent
Seabrook Island: 0 percent
Springmaid Beach: 0 percent
Sullivan’s Island: 0 percent