More beaches nationwide were closed last year because of bacteria contamination than at any other time in the past 16 years, according to a report released yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Maryland's beaches ranked 10th-worst on the council's list of coastal states.
Three Kent County beaches exceeded the maximum standard for bacteria contamination half the time they were tested, the report said. Beaches in Wicomico and St. Mary's counties also made the list for having higher-than-allowed contamination.
The report chastised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the public with more stringent standards and better testing methods. The EPA's standards, which were established in 1986, use out-of-date testing methods that delay getting results for several days, the council said.
Congress required that the EPA update the standards by 2005, but the agency says it won't have new standards in effect until 2011.
Yesterday, the council filed a lawsuit against the EPA in Los Angeles for failing to meet the deadline to update the standards. The organization contends that the EPA's methods take too long and test only for bacteria, while technology allows testing for parasites and viruses. An EPA spokesman said the agency would have no comment.
Nancy Stoner, director of the council's clean water project, said this year's survey confirmed what many suspected, that the rash of development in coastal areas nationwide is harming water quality.
"We know what the problems are. We know that they're associated with development. And we're not doing enough to address those," Stoner said.
Water contamination results in part from storm water runoff, which is increased by development. Rainwater typically sinks into unpaved land and replenishes underground aquifers. But when rain hits concrete or other impervious surfaces, it carries whatever is in its path - such as animal waste, garbage and other discarded items - into waterways.
That runoff, combined with pollution from sewage treatment plants and failing septic systems, can make people sick if they drink, swim or otherwise come into contact with water contaminated by it.
This week, Anne Arundel County health officials closed the beach at Sandy Point State Park because of unsafe bacteria levels. Last year, the county warned against swimming in Tar Cove in Pasadena's Sillery Bay because of high levels of enterococci bacteria. And in Kent County, Betterton Beach has frequently been closed in the past because of high concentrations of algae.
Unlike Betterton, a well-known public beach, the three Rock Hall beaches that made the NRDC's list - Rock Hall Beach, Ferry Park and Bay Country Campground and Beach -are small, private beaches.
"These are not licensed, approved beaches. They're just where the river is, where people just jump in the water. We monitor them because we know people swim there," said Ed Birkmire, Kent County's director of environmental health.
The most recent tests indicate that the three beaches are safe for swimming, Birkmire said.
To read the report, go to baltimoresun.com/beachreport.