Southern Brooklyn

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.

Comment policy


  1. South Brooklyn beaches are the dirtiest, let me repeat that, the dirtiest beaches I have ever been to.  Brighton 15th used to be tolerable, but I suspect even that location has succumbed to the inevitable.  For one thing police need to better control the alcohol drinking situation which leads to all the broker bottles.  I don’t understand how eager entrepreneurs are able to walk around the beach screaming “Cold beer, cold Caronas”, sell to minors and not get arrested.  Not to mention people who bring their own coolers full of alcohol.

    There need to be more trash cans.  Unfortunately people are lazy and if takes them more then 10 seconds to reach a trash can they throw their trash on the sand.  Bottom line is, if more resources are not allocated by the police and sanitation departments to our beaches, this situation will not get any better.  The reason why I think the situation is so bad is that there are no large and powerful business interests that rely on the beach going public.  In Florida and other places the beaches are major source of revenue for nearby businesses and so the local authorities make sure they are kept clean.  Oh well.

  2. I ran 7:30 AM Tuesday morning on the boardwalk. I was ASTOUNDED at how clean the boardwalk was, after the July 4th weekend… Very, very impressive, they must have been working all night and did a great job. Makes up for the toilet paper situation 🙂

        “TRUTH” definitely said it right about the garbage cans. Why are they all gathered together in the middle of the beach at Bay 1 (or is it 2). Nobody is going to walk to throw their junk out. Is that to make the garbage collectors’ jobs easier, was that put into a union contract? Just kidding,  but it makes no sense, 20 garbage cans sitting there in the middle of the beach.

        I’m not against vendors on the beach, i think it makes for a more interesting beach, but the sales of any bottles of anything has got to be stopped. Unfortunately, our population doesn’t seem responsible enough to deal with bottles.

        Still, I recall the time in ’95 where I was in a volleyball tournament at the great, spotless, clean, perfect beach of Long Beach, LI. With the score 12-11 (15 wins), I stepped on a big piece of glass and needed first aid (I continued the game, my partner would have roasted me if I quit!). My point is, perhaps there’s selective memory when people talk about the cleanliness of beaches.

  3. Yes Yes they are…..

    in fact they are soooo polluted that even Seals don’t wanna be in them

  4. While there is nothing wrong with beach vendors in principle, even the vendors who just sell water without a vendor’s license are doing so illegally and are taking away business from properly licensed vendors who sell on the board walk and we can presume pay at least some taxes.

  5. Yes, people should be picking up after themselves, but the Parks Department deserves some of the blame.  Two years ago they changed their policy of having litter baskets spread out all over the beach.  They now cluster them in groups of 12 all placed about 50 feet from the boardwalk so they have less work collecting them.  That is absolutely ridiculous.  Every time you need to through away some litter, instead of a 30 second walk, you now have a 5 minute walk each way to the basket.  You are not going to do that several times a day in the hot weather, so you must save up your garbage for one or two trips.  Most people are too lazy to do this and now just say the hell with it, I’ll just leave my trash here because you can’t even see where the baskets are from a spot near the water.

    Whose hair brained idea was this?  They don’t empty the baskets any more often.  It makes no sense at all.  If you are going to walk that far to the cluster of baskets, you might as well walk a few more feet to the boardwalk where there are plenty of bskets that are still spread out.  The fact that the beaches are dirtier shows this new policy is a dismal failure.  The baskets need to be placed back on the sand again where you have a short walk to them.  I’m surprised no one has complained about this.

  6. I would be curious to measure the bacterial levels around Floyd Bennett Field immediately before and then shortly after the imminent concerts. How many Rent-a-Thrones did they put in place? For a wagon train from Williamsburg?

  7. The beach was just as dirty when the baskets were spread out.  People are basically lazy and don’t care.  Baskets used to be used to rest radios on and turned on their sides to lean against.  Asking people to pick up after themselves generally does not work– They look at youl ike you’re crazy or put on the I don’t understand you face.   The Parks Dept. does do a fantastic job of cleaning up every night after the slobs who can’t tote what they used with them when they leave.

  8. The article states that the beaches are dirtier, and I’m saying the replacement of the litter baskets to make it more inconvenient for the beachgoer is the reason for that.  The other things you say are correct.

  9. This just goes to show we need a private beach!! Charge just like most of the CLEAN Jersey beaches do. I am sickened when I walk with my dog at night at the mess the people who bus in leave behind. Why do we allow it in Manhattan Beach- Brighton Beach- shooting, trash, and filth why??

  10. hey truth, I drink on the beach..and PICK UP. I also lived in Panama City Beach Fla. and lived right on the beach, never have I seen the trash left behind as I see in Manhattan Beach! You can put a trash can every step apart, but you cant get the “trash” that comes in by the bus load to use them! We need to CHARGE for beach access, and have paid workers enforcing ..or just look at the crap they leave behind, such a shame that we can not allow parking, even for those who live here..yet, we let our beaches be trashed by people who don’t even live here

  11. here’s where i differ from you. Forcing people to walk back and forth on the hot sand is not fair, just to benefit boardwalk vendors. Besides, with the exception of between west 10th and west 15th (approx), there are no places even on the boardwalk for food. What should we do, walk a mile to a store in order to keep beach vendors out?

       I anything, they should have shacks on the beach for refreshments. I remember the one on Bay 9 operated for years.

  12. Sorry, the city owns the waterfront areas, which translates into, “It belongs to the people”. Now I am quite aware that the Bloomberg administration doesn’t care much for the masses but the law is very clear here, you can’t privatize a public beach.

  13. There are only two places on the entire Brighton Beach Boardwalk to buy take out food.  When I was a kid, there were over 50 establishments above and below the boardwalk in Brighton Beach to buy food and vendors on the beach as well.

  14. its all these young african american teens dirtying out white neighborhood, chorney blayt

  15. Neck,
    Not refering to any race- just the people that bus in and leave their trash behind!
    Guess they think it’s okay because they don’t have to look at it later on in the evening! Very rarely do I ever see someone who walks home from the beach leave a mess behind.

  16. The only private part of the shoreline in Manhattan Beach has no beach at all, just rock outcroppings. The east end is part of Kingsborough Community College, which is NYC owned.

  17. the rocky part is what I was thinking of-there is a little spot of beach between the rocks there – just enough of a pain that I have to walk down blocks to get on the beach, – would rather climb the rocks than walk the sidewalk..

  18. Many years ago there was an esplanade there. Unlike the boardwalk it was concrete. It was built originally to accommodate guests at the two hotels that faced the ocean. After one hotel closed and the other moved northward it became a pedestrian pathway. In the 1970s the land was sold to those whose properties adjoined the walkway and the southern outcropping. It was a pedestrian throughfare until 1993 when one of the owners fenced off his part of it, leading to a lawsuit by the other owners and the MBCG.

    Sheepshead Bites has covered a more recent development regarding the strip of land.

  19. Thank you..I have seen alot of Coney Island history photo’s, some Brighton Beach- and fewer still of Manhattan Beach. What a grand/beautiful place it must have been back in the day!

  20. A hundred years ago the entire island was magnificent. My grandparents remembered back then. It was a completely different world then, everything was built to impress and awe. Even the amusement area was spectacular. I’d love to have a time machine so I could see it for myself.

  21. A time machine would be nice, I bet your family has seen way too many changes here! If your grandparents saved photos maybe you could share some now and then photos?

  22. One of my cousins has my father’s parent’s photos, someday I shall get her to look through them to find historically interesting ones. And father “stored in a safe place” boxes of photos my mother took in the 30s and 40s. We still can’t find them; this house is filled with secret places. My mother told me that there are some photos that were taken out this way, especially in Brighton and Coney Island.

    The Brooklyn Museum, The NYPL, and the Library of Congress do have some interesting photos on-line of that period of time, and earlier. There is even a photo of the Elephantine Hotel. Someday, if I find time, I am going to make an on-line database of what is available.

  23. know what you mean, I hope you discover all your homes little hidie-holes!
     Our house in the South had a “baptist liquor cabinet”- a slide out behind the fireplace`..I put all of our jewelry in there, we moved, and forgot it- thankfully the new owners were kind enough to let me back in to get it- and show them their new secret!
     I will look forward to your pictures one day! And thank you for the NYPL photo tip.

  24. Was just at crowded Brighton Beach today/Sun. 7/9/11. Did notice lots of garbage about that had not made it’s way to a trash can. Also was aware of the groups of trash cans mid beach. Water appeared clean but then again I didn’t have a microscope. Here’s hoping that the waters can stay clean/clear of septic emissions because being a city resident – this is one of my few options.


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