Dirt Alert: Are Our Beaches Really That Polluted?

Photo by Allan B.

We’ve been receiving a lot of complaints this year about the filth left behind by crowds on our public beaches. Cigarette butts and broken glass mingle in the sand, beer cans and fast food wrappers float along the waters, and the boardwalks – oh, the boardwalks! – have almost as much garbage as people.

That is a problem, and if the city can’t afford to clean it up, they should at least be pushing a proper public awareness campaign to leave with what you came with, as some of us classier folk were taught as children. But that’s not the problem we’re talking about today when we talk about dirty beaches. We’re talking about the water, and pollution from sewage and runoff.

A new report issued last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests our beachwaters are contaminated with bacteria that can cause dysentery, hepatitis and pink eye, among other gross-out conditions. The report sparks off some alarmist coverage by our colleagues over at the Brooklyn Paper and Metro, who portrayed Brooklyn’s beaches as cesspools. But things may not be as bad as they appear.

Brooklyn Paper wrote the following (emphasis added):

Waters stretching from Manhattan Beach to Coney Island are ridden with dangerously high levels of bacteria, according to a scathing report released this week by an environmental advocacy group, just in time for the long weekend.
Using data off of water samples taken last year by state-commissioned scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that there is raw sewage lurking in the waves that can cause illnesses like dysentery, pink eye and stomach flu.
… In addition to Coney, the national report found four other Brooklyn beaches with contaminated water: Brighton Beach between Brighton 15th and Sixth streets, Manhattan Beach, Kingsborough Community College, and Kiddie Beach, a private beach in Gerritsen Beach which, at 14 percent, had the highest percentage of contaminated water samples in Kings County.

What’s not noted is that this was hardly a scathing report, and, in a broader context, the five borough’s beaches are doing relatively well. The Daily News took that more enlightened angle:

The council singled out beaches in California (Avalon Beach), Florida (Bayou Chico), and New Jersey (Beachwood Beach West) for being particularly stomach-turning spots to swim, according to a new report.
Luckily, New York City beaches scored well: They had relatively low levels of bacteria compared to many upstate swimming spots.

Overall, New York State’s beaches came in 19th of all states for water quality, and exceeded national standards only 9 percent of the time. A 91 percent success rate in a city of seven million and with an arguably dilapidated sewage system ain’t half bad.

Compared to the remaining five boroughs, Brooklyn averages in better than some, worse than others. Water samples taken in the Bronx exceeded state standards 10 percent of the time – on average – with five of their 10 beaches exceeding it 15 percent of the time. In Queens, the Rockaways and Breezy Point didn’t exceed standards during any testing – but Douglass Manor (25 percent) and Whitestone Beach (17 percent) did. In Staten Island, two of the three beaches – Wolfe’s Pond Park and South Beach – exceeded state standards by 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively, while the third never did. Not so bad.

So how did Brooklyn stack up? Here are the numbers from the report:

Coney Island Beach Brighton 15th–6th ………. 9%
Coney Island Beach Brighton 6th–Ocean Parkway ………. 0%
Coney Island Beach Ocean Parkway–West 8th ………. 4%
Coney Island Beach West 16th–27th ……….  9%
Coney Island Beach West 28th–West 37th  ……….  0%
Coney Island–West 8th St. To Pier 2  ……….  0%
Gerritsen/Kiddie Beach ………. 14%
Kingsborough Community College  ………. 5%
Manhattan Beach  ……….  6%
Seagate Beach–38th Street  ………. 0%
Seagate Beach–42nd Street  ………. 0%

Granted, they’re not the best numbers in the world – and I certainly won’t go swimming at Kiddie Beach anytime soon – but these aren’t end-of-the-world numbers, either. Certainly not worthy of hyperbole like “scathing report” or depicting them as chronically “ridden with dangerously high levels of bacteria;” such doom-and-gloom is only going to hurt area businesses that rely on beachgoers during summer months.

It’s true, sometimes the beaches get dirty. We live in a big city teeming with industry, and with sewage plants and highways dotting our coastline. But water quality in Jamaica Bay is historically improving, to the point where it can once again support marine life that previously died out, and city and state agencies are constantly rolling out new programs to safeguard those advances.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Metro nailed a key detail of the report in their coverage:

None of the city’s eight public beaches was closed by officials last year, despite the fact that half of them reported levels of bacteria that exceeded recommended state standards.
“They’re not proactively alerting anyone,” NRDC senior attorney Larry Levine said of the city Health Department. “It’s important for people to know to protect their health.”
… Those bacteria levels should have prompted closures — or the Health Department should have at least posted an advisory to swimmers, Levine said.
The Health Department defended their decision not to close any public beaches last year. Four public beaches — Coney Island, Orchard Beach, Wolfe’s Pond and Manhattan Beach — exceeded state levels, but retesting showed they were safe, the department told Metro in a statement. Some private beaches are more susceptible to closure due to their location, said a department spokeswoman, such as Douglaston Manor Beach in Queens, which is near a failing septic system.

According the report, our area beaches are tested weekly during the summer. But with the amount of people on them, they should be tested daily, and failed tests should prompt immediate closures. Storms, which can flood sewage plants and force them to discharge untreated sewage into nearby waterways, should be dealt with proactively with warning signs posted at all local beaches until proper testing is concluded. The problem here isn’t pollution, it’s public awareness and education.

That said, the perception of polluted beaches is a popular myth, but Brooklyn stacks up well when compared to the rest of the nation. Go to the beaches and enjoy. Just remember to take your garbage home with you.


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