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Source: The Journal News

Westchester beaches get murky review

BY GREG CLARY

Posted: July 31, 2009
Originally Published: July 30, 2009

MANHATTAN - A national report released yesterday says local swimmers are safer diving into the waters off Westchester County than in some sections of Long Island or the Jersey Shore.

But pollution problems remain in some local swimming areas, primarily because of storm runoff.

New York and New Jersey endured 1,818 beach closing and advisory days in 2008, according to the 19th annual "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," released yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The 1.2 million-member organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment drew on state statistics and found that for the fourth consecutive year, beach closings and advisory days across the country topped more than 20,000.

"Summer trips to the beach are an American tradition - one that should not be ruined by pollution," said Sarah Chasis, director of the NRDC's Oceans Initiative.

The NRDC's report looked at beach closing statistics from more than 6,000 locations across the nation, including 25 in Westchester's Sound shore communities. Hudson River beaches were not included in the report — only Croton Point Park is open to the public.

There was an overall decrease in closings and advisory days nationally since 2007 to 20,341 from 22,571.

Officials said the drop was likely the result of dry conditions in many parts of the country, and decreased funding for water monitoring in some states last year, rather than large-scale improvements.

Locally, the swimming area with the highest percentage of samples exceeding healthy standards was Shore Acres Club in Mamaroneck at 22 percent.

Popular areas such as Rye Town Park's Oakland Beach and Mamaroneck Beach Cabana Club had 11 percent each.

Comparatively, Tanner Park in Suffolk County had 41 percent of its samples exceed state standards and was closed for 69 days.

In the 365 coastal beaches in New York, 8 percent of all reported water-quality samples exceeded the state's maximum standards for bacteria.

Swimming in areas where treated sewage or pollution from heavy rain runoff affect water quality can cause stomach problems, rashes, pinkeye as well as ear, nose and throat problems, public health officials say. Children, seniors and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable.

NRDC's report provides a five-star rating guide for 200 of the nation's popular beaches, based on indicators of beach-water quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination.

New York's and New Jersey's popular beaches received poor-to-mixed reviews, receiving between one to three stars.

The worst rating in New York on that scale - one star - is Zach's Bay at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh.

New Jersey is home to four beaches receiving only one star: Central Beach in Point Pleasant, Ocean County; 12th Street Beach in Belmar and Essex Beach in Spring Lake, both in Monmouth County; and Avalon Beach at 30th Street in Cape May County.

Two-thirds of New York state's closing and advisory days were pre-emptive rain advisories issued after rainfall, which carries pollution from land and sewage from overflowing sewers into the ocean.

Beach-water quality tests showing unhealthy levels of human or animal waste in the water accounted for 33 percent of the closings and advisories in the state. Stormwater and sewage continue to be the principal known sources of beach-water contamination.

More than half of New Jersey's closings were pre-emptive due to syringes, used cotton swabs and other medical waste that washed ashore in Cape May.

Westchester County health officials say that next year's report will likely show plenty of closings as well, based on record rainfalls in June.

"We don't like to close beaches, but we have to protect bathers," said Lenny Meyerson, the department's deputy commissioner for environmental health. "There has to be a heavy rainfall and this is of course all related to stormwater."

Environmentalists and regulators say the best strategy to protect swimmers from beach-water pollution is to prevent it.

Meyerson said new federal regulations are in place that will require municipalities to address infrastructure needs to more effectively control stormwater runoff.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said residents of places like Westchester pay heavy property tax bills to be able to enjoy amenities like beaches.

"We can send astronauts to the moon and a probe to Mars, and yet we haven't decided to filter stormwater to protect our beaches and bays," Esposito said.