If you’re planning a day at a coastal beach in Maine, don’t worry too much about whether the water will be clean and safe for swimming.

But know what you’re getting into, say state and national environmental advocates.

And good luck with that.

It might be harder than you’d expect to get reliable information.

Officials from Environment Maine, concerned residents, business owners and a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council gathered Tuesday at Portland’s East End Beach to decry the “political spin” of last week’s statement by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection that water quality is the best it has been since 2008 at 61 monitored public beaches covering more than 30 miles of coastline.

The environmentalists made their case for more comprehensive, regular water testing and clearer, more credible reporting of results.

“I was astonished to hear the false and misleading statements” about water quality at the state’s public beaches, said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, a grass-roots environmental education and advocacy organization with 14,000 members statewide.

The state’s report that coastal beaches are clean and safe for swimming misrepresents testing results, she said.

“Water quality is not as good” as the DEP said it is, Figdor said.

The water quality has “remained relatively unchanged” over the past several years, she said, from 8 percent of samples exceeding national public health standards for bacterial content in 2001 to 9 percent in 2010 and 2011. The national average stood at 8 percent in 2010 and last year.

Samantha DePoy-Warren, director of communications for the DEP, said, “I’m not sure how you can say anything other than that the water quality is improving.”

The DEP report last week included results of DEP testing, in part compiled with the Maine Healthy Beaches Program, showing that coastal waters were safe for swimming on more than 98 percent of the beach days in 2011.

The number of posted advisory days – when swimmers are warned of conditions that may lead them to avoid the water – was down from 207 in 2010 to 112 last year.

To suggest otherwise or to insinuate that the DEP “is not doing enough” to protect beaches and water quality “is offensive,” DePoy-Warren said.

In statistics from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which tracks pollution nationwide, Maine ranks 20th of 30 states that are monitored for beach water contamination.

Polluted beach water has been blamed for illnesses and maladies such as stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. Children are believed to face higher risk because they often gulp water while they swim.

The number of “beaches not meeting the national standard is not going down,” said Melissa Waage, campaign director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Speaking at Tuesday’s event, she said clean beaches are “critically important” for human health and for Maine’s tourism and related economies, which generate an estimated $44 billion a year, of which at least $7 billion is attributed to beach uses.

“The beaches need more help … and much more aggressive action,” Waage said, to ensure that the water is clean and remains healthful.

“There are many days that our beaches are fine,” but more can be done individually and collectively, at every level of government, to improve their water quality, she said.

One success story came from East End Beach. Once closed to swimmers, the water has been cleaned sufficiently to allow swimming at the beach.

Other beaches with good marks for cleanliness are Popham Beach in Phippsburg and Pine Point Beach in Scarborough.

Those showing a significant percentage of failed water-quality tests include Laite Beach in Camden (41 percent), Wells Harbor in Wells (28 percent), Riverside in Ogunquit and Goodies in Rockport (each 26 percent).

Some of the sunbathers who were at East End Beach at noon Tuesday remain unconvinced that the water is safe for swimming.

Tina Gorham of Portland, who visits two or three times a week, still doesn’t go into the water, she said, “because I get nervous about it from the past.”

Donna Brown of Portland had a different take on the problem of pollution. “They need to clean the (beach) part,” she said, pointing to a thick line of wrack and trash along the shoreline.

Dogs are an issue, too, she said, because some owners don’t clean up after their pets.

For any cleanup effort to be effective, “you have to police it almost,” she said.

Figdor said beach users in Maine are not warned every time water test samples exceed national recommended health standards. It is left to local beach managers to decide how often to test and whether to issue advisories about water quality.

The health standards establish a limit of 104 enterococcus (a type of streptococcus) bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. Generally, enterococcus is a sign of human or animal waste, often transported by runoff from heavy rains.

Closing a beach is uncommon, and generally reflects a protracted, serious problem with pollution. No Maine beaches were closed last year.

“Parents cannot be expected to be biologists,” Figdor said, calling for reliable and accessible information that lay people can understand.

DePoy-Warren of the DEP noted that anyone who wants to know what the conditions are — or have been — at a particular Maine beach can get the information online at mainehealthybeaches.com.

The environmental advocates said there are clear, common-sense ways to be protected from potentially fouled waters.

“Pay attention to the rain,” said Joe Payne of the Friends of Casco Bay in South Portland. “It is not advisable to swim after a rainstorm” because stormwater runoff is the leading known source of water pollution.

Payne had a recommendation for homeowners to protect any body of water: “Keep all the water that falls on your property on your property” by taking steps to prevent runoff.

 

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]