TESTIMONY OF J. CHARLES FOX
TESTIMONY OF J. CHARLES FOX
ACTING ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR FOR WATER
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON WATER RESOURCES
AND ENVIRONMENT OF THE COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION
AND INFRASTRUCTURE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
August 6, 1998
Good afternoon, Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. I am J. Charles Fox, Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Thank you for your invitation to be here today and for the opportunity to discuss EPA's efforts to protect ocean and coastal waters and to comment on bills concerning beach safety and the Ocean Commission.
Value of Coastal Waters
We all recognize the importance of this Nation's ocean and coastal waters and the resources they contain. These waters provide some of the most diverse and biologically productive habitat in the country. Ocean and coastal waters also hold great recreational and commercial value for this country. Coastal waters support 28.3 million jobs and generate $54 billion in goods and services every year. The coastal recreation and tourism industry is the second largest employer in the nation, serving 180 million Americans visiting the coasts every year. The commercial fish and shellfish industry is also very important, contributing $45 billion to the economy every year, while recreational fishing contributes $30 billion to the U.S. economy annually. Because so many people are drawn to, or dependent on, ocean and coastal waters, restoring, maintaining, and enhancing their health and sustainability are of great importance.
Year of the Ocean and Clean Water Action Plan
In recognition of the critical values of coastal waters, we are celebrating this year the International Year of the Ocean. Countries around the world are examining their responsibilities as stewards of coastal and ocean resources. At the recent National Oceans Conference in Monterey, California, the President committed to a series of actions in recognition of our responsibilities, and again pledged the Administration to implement the Clean Water Action Plan (CWAP). This Action Plan, undertaken in recognition of the progress made and challenges remaining after a quarter century of implementing the Clean Water Act (CWA), contains several important actions directed to marine and estuarine protection, including specific actions to assure attainment and protection of healthy, safe beaches and beach water.
The Action Plan also addresses the ecological health of our coastal waters through its key actions directed to reducing and controlling nonpoint sources and nutrient loadings. Examples include: increasing the Section 319 funding available to States with upgraded and approved Nonpoint Source Management Programs; promoting the establishment of enforceable State and tribal authorities needed to ensure implementation of nonpoint source controls in coastal States; and, provision of additional funding through USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which offers farmers and ranchers technical, financial, and educational assistance to help prevent nutrient over-enrichment. EPA is also working to control stormwater sewer and combined sewer overflows.
Your full support for Clean Water Action Plan implementation is vital to the successful protection of our beaches and coastal waters.
Recent Coastal Pollution Threats
Recent news stories on fish kills in North Carolina's Neuse River and medical waste washing ashore on Rockaway Beach in New York highlight the importance of the National Oceans Conference Initiatives and the Clean Water Action Plan key actions for coastal resources.
Pfiesteria and other Harmful Algal Blooms that cause fish kills also can pose a threat to human health. EPA is working closely with North Carolina and other States -- such as Virginia, Maryland and Florida -- that experienced outbreaks of harmful algal blooms last year. EPA provided $100K to North Carolina in 1997 to identify causes of fish kills, and we are providing an additional $365K this year to increase the Rapid Response Team's capabilities in the Neuse River, as well as to expand monitoring in the Tar-Pamlico River. In addition to our direct financial support to affected States, EPA is involved in efforts, through the Clean Water Action Plan, to develop a coordinated response system that supports State and local efforts in coastal waters for addressing major harmful algal blooms. The Plan also directs EPA and other federal agencies to implement the National Harmful Algal Bloom Research and Monitoring Strategy. This Strategy addresses characterization of environmental conditions likely to support toxic species, predictions of the onset of conditions conducive to bloom formation, and the means to prevent, control or mitigate their impacts.
On July 25, New York City officials closed 6.4 miles of Rockaway Beach because vials and syringes washed ashore. Over a five-day period, 53 hypodermic needles and 92 glass vials and other pieces of medical waste washed ashore. The beach re-opened on July 30 after a search uncovered no new medical or drug waste on the beach. Marine debris, such as this medical waste, poses an obvious health threat to beachgoers. EPA is working to control marine debris through the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program, a five-year study designed to determine the major sources of marine debris, and whether the amount of debris on our coastlines is increasing or decreasing. This Program will help provide data that can be used by coastal managers to control the sources of the debris.
The CWAP calls for NOAA, EPA, DOI, and USDA, in cooperation with States and Tribes, to develop a coordinated coastal waters monitoring plan by the end of 1999, and, by the end of 2000, to develop a comprehensive report to the public on the condition of the Nation's coastal waters.
EPA'S PERSPECTIVES ON LEGISLATION BEING CONSIDERED BY THE SUBCOMMITTEE
The legislation before the Subcommittee would support current efforts to protect coastal waters. In this Year of the Ocean, it is appropriate that we review our policies, identify gaps of knowledge, and work toward better protection and management of our ocean resources. Both the House and the Senate have introduced bills to do that. EPA supports the idea, contained in both S. 1213 and H.R. 3445, of developing and implementing long-range policy with respect to ocean and coastal resources, and we look forward to working with your staffs to craft appropriate legislation.
Beach Safety -- Background
Before discussing the specific provisions of The Beach Assessment, Closure and Health Act (H.R. 2094), I would like to address our current understanding of the problems facing coastal recreational waters and the Agency's framework for addressing them. I would also like to note that our efforts have been undertaken in cooperation with other federal, State, Tribal, and local agencies, building on the existing authorities of the Clean Water Act.
Beach advisories and closings in the United States are generally due to the presence of disease-causing microorganisms or pathogens, which can originate from discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage or runoff from many different sources, including concentrated animal feeding and pasturing operations, into local waters. Beachgoers are at risk of infection from ingestion or inhalation of contaminated water, or through contact with the water.
To protect waters designated for this recreational use, States under the CWA, set water quality standards that include criteria for levels of indicator pathogens with known risk of infection. States and local governments then monitor their waters for these indicators, compare their results to the criteria, and determine if action is necessary to protect public health or environmental quality.
Beginning in 1976, EPA recommended fecal coliforms as the indicator organism for use in State water quality standards programs. Coliforms are microorganisms found in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. Their presence in water indicates fecal pollution and the potential presence of pathogens. In 1987, based on new research data, EPA recommended the use of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and enterococci rather than fecal coliforms as the basis for bacterial water quality standards. The presence of these two bacteria in recreational waters is considered to have a higher degree of association with outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases than fecal coliforms. About one third of the States have adopted either E. coli or enterococci in their water quality standards for fresh and marine waters. However, most States continue to use fecal coliforms, and a small number still use total coliforms to protect waterbody uses associated with recreation and shellfish harvesting.
In addition to issues raised by inconsistent bacterial water quality standards, beachgoers can be affected by waterborne pathogens if there is inadequate monitoring or untimely notification of the public. Currently, monitoring programs vary widely at the State and local level. While many State and local governments have comprehensive recreational waters monitoring programs, some recreational waters are not monitored at all. Others may be monitored, but lack a procedure for notifying the public in a timely manner of potential health risks.
There is not enough information available now to quantify the extent of beach pollution throughout the country. What we do know is that beach pollution is a persistent problem. In 1997, there were over 4,000 individual beach closings and swimming advisories. State and local health departments issued most of these beach closings when monitoring data showed bacteria levels exceeded beach water quality standards. EPA believes that better monitoring and improved water quality standards will lead to even more beach closings and swimming advisories.
The EPA Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health (BEACH) Program
Recognizing the need to strengthen beach programs, EPA's administrator, Carol Browner, announced the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health (BEACH) Program on May 23, 1997. Consistent with the purposes of H.R. 2094, the goal of this program is to significantly reduce the risk of infection to users of the nation's recreational waters through improvements in recreational water programs, communication, and scientific advances. The BEACH Program applies to fresh water recreational areas, such as inland lakes, ponds, and rivers, as well as marine waters such as oceans and bays. However, it does not apply to public or private swimming pools or water parks.
The BEACH Program emphasizes three themes:
The following are a few of the highlights of the BEACH Program to date:
- Getting up-to-date beach water quality standards adopted in all States;
- Informing the public about recreational water quality; and
- Conducting research to develop new indicators for non-gastrointestinal diseases and new monitoring protocols to ensure detection of water quality problems.
The President's Clean Water Action Plan describes a series of actions that EPA will take in the near future under the BEACH Program and other Agency coastal protection programs. The following Key Actions are outlined in the CWAP to accelerate progress toward ensuring that beaches are safe for swimming:
- The first annual National Health Protection Survey of Beaches was completed in the spring of 1998. This survey builds on the important work the Natural Resources Defense Council began 7 years ago to survey beach monitoring and closure activities. The Nation Health Protection Survey of Beaches is a voluntary survey of government agencies which collected information on beach health activities carried out at local beaches. Phase I of the survey included coastal and Great Lakes recreational waters. EPA distributed a total of 350 questionnaires to beach health protection agencies and received responses from 159 agencies, primarily local governments. Based on the responses, 124 agencies have advisory or closing programs in place for approximately 1000 beaches to restrict swimming when unsafe water quality conditions are present. Information collected through the survey is available to the public at EPA's "Beach Watch" site on the Internet (www.epa.gov/ost/beaches). In 1999, EPA will implement Phase II of the national survey by expanding the coverage to include inland waters.
- The first national beach health conference, co-sponsored by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and EPA, was held October 15 - 17, 1997. Conference attendees discussed current issues (several of which are reflected in these comments) and activities related to beach health, exchanged information about beach health initiatives, and identified and prioritized unaddressed beach health needs.
- In late 1997, EPA accelerated plans to build local partnerships with the organizations responsible for monitoring waters at beaches. EPA's Office of Water teamed with the Agency's Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking (EMPACT) program and selected five areas as pilot projects to establish and improve strong State/local partnerships, bacterial indicators and monitoring methods, site-specific predictive tools, and ways to communicate time-relevant information through a variety of media. The pilot project areas include Boston, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Southern California.
As you can see, the Agency is committed to the protection of coastal recreational waters and is working with federal, State, Tribal, and local stakeholders to provide the programmatic framework necessary to safeguard this important resource. Our program is designed to develop better indicators, standards, and monitoring protocols, provide timely notification to the public about beach water quality, and improve methods to predict when beach contamination will occur.
- In 1998, the EPA will release a BEACH Action Plan describing priority actions for federal, State, Tribal, and local implementation of beach monitoring and notification programs. This Plan, the EPA Plan for Beaches and Recreational Waters, will be a strategic multi-year plan governing activities related to recreational water quality. The Plan will be designed to be flexible enough to incorporate emerging concerns and advancing technologies. The research agenda set forth in the Plan will cover several areas, including monitoring strategies, improved indicators, enhanced modeling tools to predict beach contamination, and epidemiology studies.
- EPA will continue to update and expand the Internet-accessible database housing the results of the National Beach Health Protection Survey to provide public right-to-know information about beach water quality.
- In 1998, EPA will develop a specific plan and schedule for the development of a new generation of microbiological criteria for nationally protective beach water quality standards. New standards will be issued by 2003. The plan will include necessary research and interagency coordination, and describe the transition from the total coliforms/fecal coliforms currently in most State and Tribal water quality standards to EPA's recommended E. Coli and enterococcus criteria, and new indicators for ear, skin, and respiratory infections. To ensure a nationally consistent system, EPA will establish a schedule for federal promulgation of standards where States fail to enact protective measures.
- EPA will direct enforcement and compliance assistance efforts, together with State and local authorities, at regulated sources contributing to beach closings. These efforts will address sanitary sewer overflows, combined sewer overflows, stormwater discharges, wet weather discharges that contain substantial amounts of contaminants, and other point sources that are not discharging in compliance with applicable requirements.
Specific Comments on H.R. 2094
Let me now turn to the provisions of H.R. 2094, The Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure, and Health Act of 1997. EPA supports this legislation and believes that it complements and enhances beach safety efforts now underway.
Adoption of Coastal Recreational Water Quality Standards
Section 3 of the bill requires that States adopt water quality criteria which are consistent with the criteria published under section 304(a)(1) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act within 3 ½ years of enactment. If a State fails to adopt the water quality criteria, EPA's recommended criteria become the applicable State criteria. We note that the bill includes a proposal to ensure State adoption of EPA criteria and apply EPA's recommended criteria without requiring further promulgation by EPA. Adoption of appropriate criteria for recreational waters is overdue, and this approach may be the most cost-effective and expeditious route to ensure adequate protection of coastal recreational waters. We would like to work with you further on this issue.
We believe that strengthening criteria and standards is critical to the success of any recreational waters protection program. Strengthening State water quality standards is one of the three primary themes of the Agency BEACH Program and is a key action in the Clean Water Action Plan. Strong State and Tribal water quality standards provide the scientific and programmatic framework for enhancing beach and recreational waters protection.
State standards should be consistent with EPA's recommended criteria. However, we need to supplement the criteria with guidance to allow for flexibility in the State-to State application of the criteria to account for the diversity of geographic and aquatic conditions nationwide, while assuring a consistent level of protection of public health and improvement of environmental quality.
Revisions to Water Quality Criteria
EPA also supports the studies identified in section 4 of the bill to develop, in cooperation with federal, State, Tribal, and local officials, a more complete list of potential health risks, including effects to the upper respiratory system; better indicators for directly detecting or predicting the presence of pathogens; and more expeditious methods (including predictive models) for detecting the presence of pathogens. EPA agrees that revised criteria should be developed following completion of the research needed to support them. Current EPA criteria are indicators only for gastrointestinal illnesses. We agree that criteria are needed to protect against other illnesses caused by exposure to contaminated recreational waters.
A key action under the Clean Water Action Plan is the development in 1998 of a specific plan and schedule for a new generation of microbiological criteria for nationally protective beach water quality standards. EPA will work with the States to ensure they have new standards by 2003.
The EPA Plan for Beaches and Recreational Waters, as called for by the Clean Water Action Plan, will describe Agency research plans in the area of improving water quality indicators. Planned activities include: development of rapid indicators for fecal pollution to enable quicker notification of the public of potential health risks; enhanced analytical methods for detecting intestinal pathogen presence; new or modified indicators that distinguish between human and animal fecal contamination; and, indicator microbes that assess the risk of skin, upper respiratory tract, or eye, ear, nose and throat disease. EPA also plans to investigate more suitable indicators for tropical areas of the United States and its territories.
Coastal Beach Water Quality Monitoring
EPA believes that recreational waters should be monitored and that States and local governments should have adequate, consistent monitoring practices. The President's budget for FY1999 requests a 90% increase in 319 grant funds and a 20% increase in 106 grant funds. Water quality monitoring at beaches is eligible for both of these funds.
The bill establishes a new State grant program. We believe this grant program should be incorporated in the authorizations for CWA sections 319 and 106 to give States more flexibility, and because of the significant funding increases the Administration has requested for the CWAP. For FY 1999, the President requested a $145 million increase for CWAP, of which $115 million is for State grants under CWA sections 319 and 106.
EPA agrees with the provision in the bill calling for nationally consistent monitoring protocols which States and local governments can use to ensure that the frequency, location, and methods used for beach monitoring are protective of human health. EPA has established a research agenda to develop these protocols. As part of this research agenda, EPA is convening an expert international workgroup to help EPA develop an appropriate monitoring protocol. Field sampling studies will need to be conducted at a number of sites, and guidance must be developed for public health officials advising on when, where, and how to design and conduct a monitoring program for various types of beaches. The development of these monitoring protocols constitutes a significant research program which will take several years to complete. EPA suggests that the period for development of protocols in H.R. 2094 be extended to 4 years to allow completion of this critical research program.
EPA also supports provisions of the bill providing for States and local governments to select which recreational waters to monitor. This targeted monitoring could be achieved in many ways, such as monitoring those beaches staffed with lifeguards as a means of ensuring that limited monitoring resources are focused on the most frequently used recreational sites. We believe that the bill would allow States to monitor only those waters staffed by lifeguards and that the bill provides the flexibility to limit monitoring to those beaches with health risks.
Localities have also demonstrated that predictive tools can be successfully used to determine the need for beach advisories, significantly reducing the need for incurring the costs of monitoring a beach. For example, New Jersey and several other States have learned that storm events above a specific amount of rainfall will cause bacteria levels to rise to unacceptable levels in beach waters. Whenever these rainfall events occur, the beaches are closed to swimming until monitoring shows that indicator bacteria levels have declined.
EPA is investigating ways to improve the predictive tools. At the national level, EPA is evaluating available tools, such as water quality models, that can be used to predict the need for beach advisories or closures based on factors such as rainfall. Needed improvements to these tools will be identified and implemented. In addition, EMPACT pilot projects in EPA Regions include the development of site-specific predictive tools to be used in conjunction with targeted beach monitoring to assess potential risk to beachgoers. EPA recommends that the bill specifically allow the Administrator to approve the use of appropriate predictive models in lieu of monitoring.
EPA supports efforts to establish notification programs through State, Tribal, and local agencies. Prompt notification of the public of potential health risks is critical, and EPA is exploring ways of improving notification methods. Regional projects are piloting the use of the Internet and telephone hot lines to provide daily updates on beach conditions to the public.
EPA is supportive of legislation on floatable materials that will compliment EPA's efforts with other federal agencies to develop and implement the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program. We would like to work with the Subcommittee on the language in this bill to ensure that the objectives of this legislation are coordinated with the ongoing Marine Debris Program.
In conclusion, EPA supports H.R. 2094 -- the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health Act -- and would like to work with the Committee to improve it, and make it more consistent with the Clean Water Action Plan. In particular, we believe that the State grant program should be incorporated within the authorizations for CWA sections 319 and 106 grants. We believe that this bill complements and enhances the beach safety efforts EPA has committed to undertake in the Clean Water Action Plan. We believe that strengthening water quality standards and criteria for recreational waters is critical. We agree that EPA research efforts need to be focused on developing new indicators for non-gastrointestinal diseases and improving monitoring protocols for recreational waters. We also agree that States, Tribes and local governments should target their monitoring efforts to beaches with high public use and potential health risks.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.