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New beach water rules: Enough to make you sick

The Beach Act of 2000 gave the EPA a chance to vastly improve protection of the nation's swimmers and surfers from pathogen-caused illnesses — an opportunity that seems about to be wasted.

When Congress approved the Beach Act in 2000, I was hopeful. The law required the Environmental Protection Agency to develop federal standards for water quality that would protect beach users from pathogen-caused illnesses, and it called for modernizing an outdated approach to measuring beach water quality. I believed it had the potential to make beaches far safer for the nation's swimmers and surfers.

But since the act was passed, little has changed. Although the EPA did set aside some funding (about $10 million annually) for beach water monitoring programs, the agency dragged its feet on developing standards. It was only after the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA (I served as an unpaid expert witness in that suit) that the agency agreed, in a consent decree, to complete epidemiological studies and to develop and analyze new, rapid methods for detecting fecal bacteria in recreational waters. The agency also agreed to set new beach water quality standards by the end of 2012.

Setting those standards presents a huge opportunity. But I fear it's about to be wasted. In late December, the EPA released its draft standards, and they were not only a disappointment, they were weaker than the 1986 standards they will replace. Rather than providing strong guidelines that are consistent for all of the nation's waters, the EPA has decided to allow states to set their own beach-specific criteria. Past experience with this approach suggests it's highly unlikely that much will improve.

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