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A History of the First Testing The Waters Report

Allen Hershkowitz

Posted July 28, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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The opening sentence of NRDC’s first Testing the Waters report, published in the summer of 1991, began as follows:

 “During 1988, an unusually high number of beach closures on both coasts, which were linked to uncommon amounts of floatable wastes, focused public attention on the potential health risks of swimming in coastal waters.”

Unlike today’s more comprehensive, national analysis, our first Testing The Waters report, which my colleague Sarah Chasis and I originated, was a study of beach closings in only ten coastal states. And while today we know that closures are due primarily to sewage and storm water contamination, that was not initially clear in the late 1980s, when reports of medical waste and other debris washing up on beaches was an almost daily occurrence.

NRDC was a different place then. We were a smallish group of lawyers and technical specialists and in 1991, when the first Testing The Waters report came out, we had about 160,000 members and contributors, about one-tenth the membership that we have now. We had five offices, New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, a newly opened office in Los Angeles and we still had a Honolulu office, which we no longer have.  (Today we also have offices in Chicago, Beijing and an outpost in Montana.)

The first Testing The Waters report was produced before the internet existed, before email and before NRDC had installed desktop computers. Data gathering and research for the report was painstakingly done in a library, by telephone and by what is now referred to as “snail mail”. We wrote the report and designed the tables and charts on legal pads and then passed our notes on to colleagues who performed what was then called “word processing.”  It is possible that some younger folks might not know what “word processing” is. Essentially, what we then called “word processing” is what we would today call “typing into a computer”. But this was way back before office computers provided routine access to an internet and before email, when computers were first evolving and the first advance they offered was faster typing, with previously unheard of cut and paste options, which was then known as “word processing.” There was no electronic version of the first Testing The Waters report. If you wanted copies, you wrote us a letter by “snail mail” and we’d send you a copy, for free. Today, we can send you a PDF of the first report in about five seconds. At that time, the term PDF did not exist.

Back in 1991 NRDC had no communication department. All senior program staff, including Sarah and I, wrote our own press releases, organized our own press conferences and interviews, and maintained our own personal relationships with reporters. The press conference for the first Testing the Waters, at which Sarah and I both spoke, was a big deal and our release generated national news.

The best things in life are often unplanned, and such was the case with Testing The Waters. As mentioned above, in the late 1980s floatable debris was washing up on U.S. beaches at an unprecedented rate. In part this was due to unscrupulous waste haulers trying to avoid newly implemented federal and state waste management laws, which made safer disposal more costly, especially for the biological and pathological wastes generated by medical establishments. Much of the waste generating public attention was medical waste, including syringes, test tubes and blood soiled debris. The public was alarmed and the media attention was fierce. I was being interviewed almost daily on the subject, having served on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Peer Review Panel for its Report to Congress on the Health Implications of Medical Waste. (I even appeared on Larry King to discuss the issue, right after an interview with Elizabeth Taylor).

One state that seemed disproportionately affected by waste wash ups was New Jersey. It seemed that New Jersey was disproportionately affected because that state most frequently closed its beaches due to debris washing up. But was N.J. really suffering from more waste washing up, or did the state seem to be more affected because it was more protective of its citizens and closed its beaches more often when a waste incident occurred?

That was the question that N.J. Congressman  Bill Hughes had at the time and he called NRDC Senior Attorney Sarah Chasis to find out what she knew about the subject of beach closures. Since I direct NRDC’s waste management program, Sarah asked me what I knew about waste washing up on beaches and how often it caused beach closures in N.J. and other states.

“Good question” I thought. I did not know how wastes washing up on beaches affected closures state-by-state, and I told Sarah that I would look into the issue. I assigned my research assistant at the time, Jennifer Kassalow, to work with me investigating beach closure standards. (Jennifer later married another NRDC researcher, Sam Hartwell, they had three children and moved to Kenya to do social and environmental work there.)

It also occurred to me that besides reviewing beach closure standards, it would be informative to count the number of beach closures in the states that we were studying, since that had never been done. At that time no one documented how many beach closures took place. I thought it was an interesting question worth investigating.

Since most of the wash-ups of waste were happening on the Atlantic coast, Sarah and I decided to focus on the eastern seaboard. Also, in that pre-computer era, focusing on our side of the continent was logistically easier. Moreover, since NRDC had just newly opened an LA office, we figured it would be good to include California in our study as well, which we did.

Thus, the research design for Testing the Waters began to evolve.

What a simple but great idea that was, and it was totally unplanned.

Neither Sarah nor I had any idea how to do the research we embarked on, since no one entity collected the data we were seeking, so we figured it out as we went along. Not only was there no national database of closures, which our work has since established, but even within individual states data were only sometimes collected, usually county-by-county. Our data gathering was painstakingly laborious and there were moments when I thought that the study simply could not be reliably produced.

As the data trickled in by phone and mail, we were able to establish early on that by far most closures, and certainly the greatest risks, stemmed not from floatable debris washing up on shore, but from high levels of bacteria in coastal waters, primarily due to sewage and storm water contamination.

Moreover, as it became clear that few counties or states kept data on beach closures, and the federal government did not do so at all, much of our original findings focused on what valuable public health related information was not being captured. We discovered that there was no agreement on which indicator organism to use to diagnose bacterial contamination, no nationally or regionally consistent closure standards, and that testing procedures and closure standards often varied even among counties within a single state. Needless to say, there was no federal or regional coordination of testing protocols, closure data gathering or beach closure practices. The risks we identified were meaningful, and the process for keeping the public safe and informed was anarchic, when it existed at all.

Our report was a bombshell. EPA was furious and on the defensive, counties and local authorities governing some of America’s greatest tourist regions were mortified by our findings, and also on the defensive. This was not a welcome report among state regulators, or within the multi-billion dollar coastal tourist industry. The media had a field day and our important message was news all over the country.

Although we started with only 10 states, we documented 2,400 beach closures in 1989 and 1990 combined, [1,400 in 1990 alone]. At the time, I was truly shocked by how many beach closures we documented. Now, sadly, we document tens of thousands of annual beach closures, many times our original findings.

Without initially aiming to do so, we became a catalyst for the more consistent and modern approach to beach closure testing and monitoring that now takes place routinely throughout the United States. Our work led to EPA reforms on monitoring, and it led to requirements for public notification about testing results and closures. Our work helped support the drafting and passage of the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 (the Beach Act), which required states to perform proper monitoring, authorized funding for that monitoring and directed EPA to do research and update its beach water quality standards.

Needless to say, since our first report was published, all the research for subsequent Testing The Waters reports has benefitted from the increase in data gathering, the development of more consistently applied testing protocols and reporting that our initial report engendered. Beach water quality and the health of beach goers are much better off because of all that. Moreover, since our first report was produced, the availability of the internet, email and computers has made our research and production of Testing the Waters a lot easier. For more on the report, read Sarah Chasis' post.

 The 20th annual Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches


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