Maine environmental regulators say a new report about water contamination on state beaches doesn’t tell the whole story, pointing out that more than 97 percent of “beach days” last year were unaffected by health advisories or closures.

Earlier this week, the Environment America Research and Policy Center issued a report analyzing water quality results at more than 2,600 beaches nationwide. The report, which used publicly available testing data, found that more than half of beaches were “potentially unsafe for swimming” at least one day in 2018 because of elevated bacteria levels in the water.

In Maine, 39 of 85 test sites had days when bacteria levels – particularly for E. coli and enterococci, two bacteria found in human or animal waste – would trigger public notification about increased health risks under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations.

“A sampling site at Goose Rocks Beach – Site 5 in York County tested as potentially unsafe for 14 days, more days than any other site in the state, and 36 percent of the days that sampling took place,” states the report’s “Safe for Swimming?” entry for Maine. “In Waldo County, the average beach was potentially unsafe for swimming on 31 percent of the days that sampling took place, a higher percentage than any other county in the state.”

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection responded on Friday that the agency works with local officials to address contamination incidents, but that the vast majority of Maine’s beaches and “beach days” were safe.

“While the headlines pulled from the report suggest problems with water quality at Maine beaches, the reality is that 93 percent of all samples collected in 2018 by the (Maine Healthy Beaches) program were below Maine’s EPA-approved threshold for safe recreation in marine waters and 97.2 percent of beach days in 2018 were free from contamination advisories and closures,” the DEP said in a statement.

Environment America is a large, national environmental research and advocacy organization with affiliates in many states, including Maine.

Beach contamination is not a new issue in Maine or in other states. And the situation has improved as many towns and cities work to update aging sewer infrastructure that dumps a combination of waste and storm runoff into local waterways during heavy rain.

Since 2002, the Maine DEP has regularly monitored water quality at dozens of beaches around the state through the Maine Healthy Beaches program. Working with municipalities, the program collects and tests water samples from Memorial Day to Labor Day and will urge postings when bacteria exceed healthy levels.

Maine Healthy Beaches program’s annual report to the EPA states that 6.6 percent of the samples collected last year exceeded the “action levels” that required notification. That was roughly double the percentage from 2017, but half the percentage from 2013, according the report.

Beach advisories or closures are based not just on bacterial counts but also on a “risk assessment” that considers the number of typical bathers, timing of the last rainfall and any history of problems at the site. Such decisions are made in coordination between the local beach manager, the Maine Healthy Beaches program and a state epidemiologist.

“An excedance of the safety threshold does not necessarily mean that someone swimming at that location will get sick, but rather it is an indicator that the risk of getting sick is increased,” the department said. “The municipalities where exceedances have occurred, in conjunction with the state, are actively working to identify and address any potential sources contributing to high bacteria at the beach.”

On Friday, none of Maine’s 37 regularly monitored beaches were closed due to contamination concerns and only two – Little Beach and Riverside Beach, both in Ogunquit – were the subject of contamination advisories, according to the daily beach status page maintained by Maine Healthy Beaches.

Most of the “exceedances” that happen in Maine are connected to heavy rainfall, which washes debris, animal waste and other contaminants into rivers, streams and storm drains.

Meagan Sims, program coordinator for Maine Healthy Beaches, said the program conducts more frequent tests – up to twice weekly – at spots that have proven problematic in the past.

“Maine typically has good water quality and 2018 was the third best for water quality in 10 years” because of low summer precipitation, Sims said in an interview. “Some of our beaches rarely have exceedances over years and years, and some have regular exceedances usually tied to rainfall.”

Storm runoff is the key factor in the 23 “potentially unsafe days” (14 at one site and nine at another) at Goose Rocks Beach in Old Orchard Beach for 2018. Goosefare Brook flows through Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard before discharging into the ocean near Goose Rocks Beach.

Christopher White, superintendent of Old Orchard’s wastewater treatment facility, said E .coli that shows up in the waters off Goose Rocks Beach often comes from Goosefare Brook, not the town plant. The facility must meet strict state and federal standards for E. coli, and the chlorine-treated wastewater or “effluent” from the plant tests lower for the bacteria than many samples taken from the beach.

“Whatever rinses down the brook, there is no treatment process for that,” White said. “All you can do is monitor for it.”

Some Maine cities, such as Portland, are in the midst of costly, long-term projects to eliminate the legacy “combined sewer overflow” systems that lead to large amounts of untreated sewage washing into local waterways during storms.

Sims with Maine Healthy Beaches said the “vast majority” of beaches that have exceedances at least 10 percent of the active season are due to precipitation. And exceedances are expected every year because storm runoff will inevitably carry away waste from pets, livestock or wild animals.

“We are trying to make sure if exceedances are there, that we know about them and can do something about them,” Sims said.


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