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Possible cut to beach testing a health threat, critics say

WASHNGTON - From sea to shining sea, Americans love the beach.

The average citizen visits a coastal shore, Great Lake, or river about 10 days a year, according to a federal estimate. And they spend a lot of money, nearly $6 trillion in 2007, 85 percent of all tourism revenue, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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But money doesn’t always buy happiness at the beach. About 3.5 million people each year get sick enough to be nauseated or get diarrhea after splashing in water containing harmful bacteria, according to an Environmental Protection Agency estimate.

This is why environmentalists are criticizing the Obama administration’s proposal to cut all funding for states to monitor contamination at beaches starting in 2013.

The president’s budget request has a long way to go before passing, but “if it goes through, the states are going to have a tough choice: cut back the number of beaches they monitor or find state revenue to cover their efforts,’’ said Jon Devine, an attorney for the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.

“I find it hard to speculate about how it might play out, but . . . fewer instances of monitoring and less frequent monitoring,’’ Devine said. “The beach may well be open, but the states will be less well equipped to provide more current information.’’

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has given about $110 million to states under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act since its passage in 2000, defended the budget cut as the right decision in austere times.

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Beach monitoring is important, but after 12 years of funding, states now have the technical expertise to go it alone and continue testing “without federal support,’’ EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in a statement. Last year that support totaled $10 million.

Except there’s one problem, said Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney at the NRDC: States, which are also cutting budgets, don’t have the money.

California, which received $507,000 for testing this year, would be forced to reduce water quality testing that has already been dramatically scaled back by government austerity cuts, officials there said. The state reaps about $11 billion yearly from beach tourism.

Virginia relies on $273,000 in federal funds for all testing on its 75-mile coast, so cutting it would have an impact, officials said. Its ocean economy generated $5 billion, according to the National Ocean Economics Program.

North Carolina currently collects water quality samples at 240 swimming areas, state officials said. If its $300,000 federal payment is cut, the state would probably lay off three workers, reduce the salary of the water quality program’s manager and slice the number of test sites to fewer than 100.

“And I’m not sure we can do that, because we would have to go back on the lab supplies that allow us to test. We would have to scale back to what’s manageable with the money we have, state funds,’’ said J.D. Potts, manager of the recreational water quality program for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Highly popular North Carolina beaches such as Nags Head, Atlantic Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and three beaches at Cape Hatteras are considered Tier 1 sites that will always be tested, but possibly not as frequently as they currently are without federal funding, Potts said.

Elevated levels of bacteria in the water accounted for 73 percent of beach closures in 2008, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report.

The millions who become sick could be a conservative estimate, the EPA says. Recreational swimmers usually don’t go to the hospital for gastronomical illnesses that cause fever, acute vomiting, and diarrhea, the most commonly reported recreational water illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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