Subcommittee on Transportation, Infrastructure, Security, and Water Quality hearing on
“Protecting Water Quality at America’s Beaches”
June 27, 2007
Thank you Chairman Lautenberg for holding this hearing. While my state of Oklahoma is not required to comply with the Beach Act of 2000, Oklahoma did adopt EPA’s 1986 bacteria criteria for recreational waters. Therefore, I am quite interested in EPA’s progress in developing new criteria which it was mandated by the Beach Act to have done by October 2005.
The Beach Act has been very successful in increasing the public’s awareness of potential problems at their local beaches. In 1997, 1,000 beaches were monitored for pathogen indicators. Thanks to the Beach Act, 3,500 of the nation’s 6,000 beaches are now regularly monitored providing potentially valuable information to the public about the safety of these recreational waters.
However, the information we are getting may not be accurately predicting the risk to people swimming in the water. According to a recent Government Accountability Report, local officials at 96 percent of the beaches in the Great Lakes states indicated it took between 18 and 36 hours to get test results back. By the time the beach is closed, the contamination has likely cleared up negating the need to close the beach but potentially having left the visitors from the previous day exposed. EPA is in the process of developing rapid response testing procedures. Further, our Chairman, as well as our two colleagues from the House each have bills that include provisions addressing real time testing. While having access to quick information is important, we need to be sure we are testing for the right indicators.
The Beach Act required EPA to finalize new criteria because of significant concerns raised about its 1986 criteria that all coastal states and many inland states have now adopted. It is important to look at some of the issues raised regarding the criteria so that similar mistakes are not repeated.
In its 2002 water quality assessment report to EPA, Oklahoma had more than 5,300 miles of rivers and streams impaired by pathogens. It is the state’s number one cause of impairments to rivers and streams and yet, like many inland states, Oklahoma has not seen a level of illness consistent with the impairments. Part of the problem may be that gastrointestinal illnesses often go unreported to health officials and an individual may assume the illness was brought on by something he ate as opposed to the day at the beach. However, the states have questioned the applicability of the criteria to all waters as well as whether the criteria adequately reflect daily exposure risks.
Furthermore, As GAO noted in its May 2007 report on the Beaches Act, according to EPA scientists, E.Coli may not be a good indicator because it occurs naturally in many environments. Additionally, on many remote coastal beaches, the bacteria are from animals which are largely believed to pose much less risk to humans than those from other humans.
With so many questions and concerns about the current criteria, it is critical that the new criteria be correct. Beaches across the country are being closed every day and as one of today’s witnesses points out, it is costing states and local governments significant recreation dollars. To test, monitor and treat for the wrong bacteria will not only cost time and resources but it will not result in an improvement in public health. While Agencies should absolutely meet their statutory deadlines, I am quite concerned about rushing the process and sacrificing science in order to more quickly develop new criteria.
The Government Accounting Office recommended EPA develop a time frame for the completion of these much needed studies and for the issuance of the new criteria. EPA has indicated that it may take as many as five years to complete the studies. The Agency recently convened a panel of 40 experts to determine the best path forward and I believe EPA is heading in the right direction. While we may all want answers tomorrow, we need to give the Agency the time it needs to develop scientifically sound criteria.
I look forward to working with the Agency and my colleagues as we look at whether the Beach Act should be reauthorized and how to ensure the nation’s recreational waters are safe.