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Enviro group warns of beach pollution as heat wave lingers

A blue heron explores a Chesapeake Bay shore at sunset. photo by flownaksala.

With hot summer weather now baked in for at least the next several weeks, an environmental group is offering a word of caution to all Marylanders who will seek relief on local beaches: Last year, 41 Maryland beaches were found to be potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day of testing.

That’s according to a report released Tuesday, “Safe for Swimming?” from the Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center. The environmental group analyzed data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s testing for bacteria on beaches throughout the state.

Several popular Maryland public beaches made the list, including Elk Neck State Park, Flag Ponds and Mayo Beach Park.

In addition to providing a sobering reminder for Marylanders who will seek relief on local beaches this summer, the report is also designed to urge state and local leaders to maximize federal funding for reducing sewage overflows and runoff pollution. According to the Biden administration, Maryland is ticketed to get an extra $43 million for clean drinking and wastewater treatment programs through the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that was signed into law in late 2021.

“Even as Marylanders are back to enjoying the fresh sea breeze and splash of waves at the beach, pollution is still plaguing too many of the places where we swim,” said John Rumpler, Clean Water Director at Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center and a co-author of the report. “Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the EPA’s strictest standards for water quality. Violations of these levels are associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers nationally, the group said.

Eleven Maryland beaches exceeded this safety threshold on one-quarter of days tested last year, with Ferry Park Beach in Kent County having higher bacteria levels on 55% of days tested.

Other Maryland beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming over 30% of days tested in 2022 were Elk Neck State Park North East River in Cecil County (54% of days tested), Flag Ponds in Calvert County (40%), Cape St. Claire at Persimmon Point in Anne Arundel County (33%), Tolchester Estates Beach in Kent County (33%), Flag Harbor in Calvert County (30%), and Tolchester Marina and Beach in Kent County (30%).

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and industrial livestock operations are the chief sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and force authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories, the environmental group said. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year in the United States from swimming in polluted waters. Those illnesses can include nausea, diarrhea, ear infections and rashes — and most cases go unreported.

While the federal bipartisan infrastructure law significantly increased funding to Maryland for sewage and stormwater to $43,046,000, much more work will be needed to stop all sewage and runoff pollution in the state, the environmental group said.

“More than 50 years ago, our nation resolved that we would make all our waterways safe for swimming,” Rumpler said. “It is time for Maryland officials to commit themselves to that goal and build on the progress of the bipartisan infrastructure law to get there.”

To find current beach advisories and closures in Maryland, visit the website of the Maryland Department of the Environment. For more detailed information on beach water quality, including data on water quality testing and beach closings and notifications from previous seasons, visit EPA’s Beach Advisory and Closing On-line Notification (BEACON) website.


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Enviro group warns of beach pollution as heat wave lingers