Waterkeepers file letter to EPA to better protect beaches, recreational areas, public health

Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, DC 20460 

Re:  Draft Recreational Water Quality Criteria, EPA-OW-2011-0466  

Dear Ms. Jackson,  

On behalf of the undersigned environmental organizations, we write to express our extreme disappointment with EPA’s Draft Recreational Water Quality Criteria (RWQC). We believe EPA has overlooked critical data and has missed an opportunity to improve our nation’s beach water quality and strengthen public health protection. 

Beaches are a critical part of our nation’s economy and are the top vacation destination in the country. Yet millions of people become sick every year as a result of polluted recreational waters. These illnesses can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and ear, eye, skin and lung infections.  

We are extremely concerned that many elements of the Draft RWQC compromise public health protection. Protecting human health must be the primary goal in developing the new RWQC. We urge you to consider the following concerns and revise the RWQC accordingly.  

EPA should utilize the best available science when developing the RWQC 

We request that EPA reanalyze all current epidemiology data (not only NEEAR study data) in order to determine new and appropriate criteria, based on risk association between fecal bacteria and public health. It is critical that the RWQC are developed utilizing all epidemiology studies that have occurred since the 1986 criteria development, as scientific data has changed exponentially in the last three decades. Moreover, EPA should revisit the levels of acceptable risk contained in the Draft RWQC. According to the Draft RWQC, an illness rate of 1 in 28 beachgoers is an acceptable risk. This level of risk is not acceptable and does not fulfill EPA’s duty to establish criteria that adequately protect public health. Instead EPA should use statistical methods to determine the lowest, significant public health risk that can be consistently identified using all available epidemiology study data. 

EPA should preserve the single sample maximum (SSM) in the RWQC.  

It is critical that the criteria retain an SSM, as this plays a crucial role in everyday beach management decisions, 303(d) beach impairment listings, and the development of TMDL programs, which promote water quality improvement. EPA’s Draft RWQC proposes using a statistical threshold value (STV) in place of an SSM, which would permit up to a 25% exceedance rate allowance for beaches. This would mask chronically polluted beaches, as well as create additional inconsistencies among states. We urge EPA to maintain an SSM that requires a consistent level of public health protection.  

EPA should include a rolling 30-day geometric mean (GM) and not a seasonal mean (up to 90 days) in the RWQC.

We urge EPA to change the seasonal, non-rolling GM criteria recommendation, and preserve the 30 day geometric mean. Using a seasonal geometric mean weakens public health protection because deviations in water quality will not routinely be determined. A seasonal geometric mean period would mask water quality fluctuations that would have otherwise been reported over a 30 day geometric mean period.  Also, prior water quality data will be ignored by EPA’s proposed non-rolling method of calculation, making it more difficult to track chronically polluted beaches. The geometric mean duration should not exceed 30 days, and it should be calculated on a rolling basis to ensure adequate public health protection.  

EPA should base rapid methods on current science and provide incentives for states to use rapid methods  

In order to offer adequate public health protection, it is important for EPA to base rapid method criteria on the best and most current epidemiology data. Developing rapid methods based on the 1986 criteria is not scientifically sound. Numerous epidemiology studies have been performed in the past two decades that EPA should utilize when producing criteria for rapid methods. The acceptable level of risk of 1 in 28 used in developing the rapid test method criteria also should be revisited.   

Another shortcoming is that the Draft RWQC does not provide any incentives for states to move forward with rapid methods. At a minimum, rapid based methods should be required nationally at high use beaches and areas with known pollution problems by a date certain and no later than 2015. We also encourage EPA to develop financial incentives for states to move forward with rapid methods.  

In summary, by revising the RWQC EPA has the opportunity to enhance public health protections for the millions of Americans who take a trip to the beach each year. In order to improve our nation’s beach water quality and strengthen public health protection, we urge EPA to use the most current and best science available in determining the new RWQC. Additionally, it is critical that EPA retain the SSM and a rolling 30 day geometric mean in order to ensure that beach management decisions are made properly and beaches are actually cleaned up. 

We thank EPA for this opportunity to provide comments on these critical water quality criteria recommendations. We urge EPA to strengthen the Draft RWQC as discussed above in order to protect the public health of millions of people for years to come. 

Sincerely, 

United Waterkeeper Alliance Members