A shrimp boat works offshore in Cameron. (FEMA / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, July 05, 2012 12:08 PM
Five of the 15 most contaminated beaches in the U.S. are in Cameron Parish, according to an recent report from a national environmental action group. But one state environmental official said one type of bacteria found in the water is not a true indicator of pollution.
The National Resources Defense Council reported Constance, Gulf Breeze, Little Florida, Long and Rutherford beaches were considered among the top 15 “repeat offenders” because more than 25 percent of water samples taken from 2007 to 2011 violated public health standards. The report indicated the contaminants mostly come from storm-water runoff that carries sewage or animal waste.
Louisiana ranked atop 30 states where water samples exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum recommended contamination standards. The report found 29 percent of samples taken statewide were above the EPA standards.
Chris Piehler, inspection division administrator for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the state Department of Health and Hospitals tests water for two different types of bacteria — fecal coliform and enterococcus, a type of bacteria found in animals’ digestive systems. He said fecal coliform levels have been monitored since 1986, but the EPA added enterococcus several years ago as an added measure of safety.
Piehler said high levels of enterococcus were found in the “surf zone” of Cameron’s beaches and was determined to be a resident bacteria. This was proved, he said, after Hurricane Rita in 2005, when samples indicated the same levels of bacteria, despite no residents or animals being in the area.
“After Rita, everything was wiped out ... but a sample collected during that time still showed high levels,” Piehler said. “That tells us they live there all the time, (and that bacteria) is probably not the best indicator of a pollution source.”
Piehler said the council’s report would “have a very different conclusion” if the water quality results only focused on fecal coliform levels. He said the levels of enterococcus decrease when samples are taken away from the surf zone.
“All wild waters have some bacteria in them,” Piehler said. “We do believe the evidence that DHH has is accurate, but it is not an accurate indication of pollution. We recognize environmental conditions are complex and not always what they seem.”
Dr. B.J. Foch, administrator and medical director for the state DHH’s Region 5 Office of Public Health, said DHH officials have tested the water quality of 26 beaches statewide every year since 2004. Testing occurs weekly from April through October, and advisories are issued if bacteria levels are deemed too high for swimming.
“A swim advisory is not a closure,” he said. “The beach is still open for boating and land-based activities. But people should avoid ingesting or swallowing water, and shouldn’t swim with an open sore or cut.”
Foch said any body of water is “never completely risk-free.”
“Some bacteria occurs naturally, and others come into the water from various sources, like sewage overflow, storm water runoff, boating waste or agricultural runoff,” he said.
In Calcasieu Parish, North Beach in Lake Charles had 21 percent of its water samples exceed state contamination standards, according to the report. South Beach and Rabbit Island had 36 percent of samples taken there exceed state standards.
The report also issued a five-star ranking of popular beaches in the country, including North Beach. It earned two out of five stars because local officials posted advisories without re-sampling and posted closings or advisories online and at the beach.
It did not earn the other three stars because it failed to have fewer than 5 percent of its water samples exceed national standards in 2009, 2010, and 2011 and because the water quality was not monitored more than once a week.