Activists defend water quality, criticize latest report on beaches

People enjoyed Tenean Beach Day on Aug. 3. Alena Kuzub photo

The advocacy group Environment Massachusetts stood by its framing of a report about bacteria concentrations at beaches across the state after other organizations raised concerns about “hyperbole.”

Several activists and officials, including state Sen. Brendan Crighton, said they felt the report earlier this month went too far by warning that more than 200 beaches in Massachusetts showed potentially unsafe levels of pollution last year because, in many instances, those conditions were only detected present on one or two days.

“To imply that because one test in the course of a season finds bacteria the beach is unsafe is ridiculous,” said Bruce Berman, director of strategy and communications for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. “It makes it difficult to make the distinction between beaches that are almost perfect and very clean and beaches that do need significant help.”

The Environment Massachusetts report analyzes how often water samples from beaches in 29 states and Puerto Rico tested for concentrations of fecal bacteria greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s highest warning level. That threshold is associated with an illness rate of 32 per 1,000 swimmers.

Of the 583 locations examined in Massachusetts, the report wrote, “223 tested beach sites were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day in 2018.”

The report itself only listed the 10 beaches with the highest number of potentially unsafe days. In the full dataset provided by Environment Massachusetts, about 165 showed only one or two days — out of anywhere between three and 18 tested — that showed concentrations above the limit.

“That may lead some people to believe their beach isn’t safe to swim when it’s just one given day,” Crighton, who co-chairs the Metropolitan Beaches Commission, said. “Inevitably, beaches in our metropolitan area are going to have some bacteria at some times, but just one instance of it doesn’t mean it’s not safe to swim at the beach.”

Environment Massachusetts State Director Ben Hellerstein pointed out that the report notes that a positive test is associated with an elevated risk of illness, not a guarantee that swimmers would get sick.

But even though the state has made progress toward cleaner waterways, he said the group still believes the situation is a “serious problem.”

“We think that every beach in Massachusetts should be safe for swimming or recreation any day of the year,” he said. “Even having one day in which there are elevated levels of bacteria in the water, we believe, is legitimate cause for elevated concern.”

Crighton and Berman, whose groups work together closely, both said they believe Save the Harbor/Save the Bay’s metrics are a more appropriate way to measure water quality. The organization produces a report card every year based on how often beaches pass weekly tests similar to those Environment Massachusetts examined.

However, while Berman said he felt the report used “way too broad a brush” and stepped into “hyperbole,” he agreed that two beaches in particular do face significant water-quality challenges needing attention: Kings Beach in Lynn and Swampscott and Tenean Beach in Dorchester, which Environment Massachusetts ranked first and second in number of days with positive tests above the threshold.

The challenges at Kings Beach — which Environment Massachusetts referred to as Nahant Bay — likely stem from problems with pipe infrastructure. Berman said that, when Lynn separated its stormwater and sewer systems decades ago, contractors may have missed replacing some pipes, which today contributes to pollution.

Significant progress could be made, he said, if the Baker administration released funding for the projects from last year’s $2.4 billion environmental bond bill.

“We’d like to see the commonwealth help by making some funds from the environmental bond bill available to Lynn to help address this problem,” Berman said.

Tenean Beach also has infrastructure challenges, but Berman identified a nearby dog park and the Neponset River as further sources of bacteria during rainstorms.