Great Lakes:

EPA and States Have Made Progress in Implementing the BEACH Act, but Additional Actions Could Improve Public Health Protection

GAO-07-591: Published: May 1, 2007. Publicly Released: May 24, 2007.

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Waterborne pathogens can contaminate water and sand at beaches and threaten human health. Under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed limits on pathogens that states use to assess beach water quality. EPA can also provide grants to states to develop water quality monitoring and public notification programs. GAO was asked to assess (1) the extent to which EPA implemented the BEACH Act including how it allocated grants to the states, (2) the monitoring and notification programs developed by Great Lakes states, and (3) the effect of the BEACH Act on water quality monitoring and contamination at Great Lakes beaches.

EPA has taken steps to implement most of the provisions of the BEACH Act but has missed statutory deadlines for two critical requirements. While EPA has developed a national list of beaches and improved the uniformity of state water quality standards, it has not (1) completed the pathogen and human health studies required by 2003 or (2) published the new or revised water quality criteria for pathogens required by 2005. Moreover, the formula EPA has used to distribute approximately $51 million in BEACH Act grants from 2001-2006 does not accurately reflect the monitoring needs of the states. This is because the formula emphasizes the length of the beach season more than the other factors--beach miles and beach use. These other factors vary widely among the states, can greatly influence the amount of monitoring a state needs to undertake, and can increase the public health risk. All eight Great Lakes states have used BEACH Act grants to develop beach monitoring and public notification programs. However, because these programs vary among the states they may not provide consistent levels of public health protection within and across Great Lakes beaches. For example, GAO found that the states' monitoring and notification programs varied considerably in the frequency with which beaches were monitored, the monitoring methods used, and how the public was notified of potential health risks. For example, some states monitor their high-priority beaches as little as one or two times per week, while others monitor their high-priority beaches daily. In addition, when local officials review similar water quality results, some may choose to only issue a health advisory while others may choose to close the beach. According to state and local officials, these inconsistencies are in part due to the lack of adequate funding for their beach monitoring and notification programs. The frequency of water quality monitoring has increased at Great Lakes beaches since the passage of the BEACH Act, helping states and localities to identify the scope of contamination. However, in most cases, the underlying causes of contamination remain unknown and unaddressed. This is because some state and local officials reported that they do not have the funds to investigate the source of the contamination or take actions to mitigate the problem, and EPA has concluded that BEACH Act grants generally may not be used for these purposes. For example, local officials at 67 percent of Great Lakes beaches reported that, when results of water quality testing indicated contamination at levels exceeding the applicable standards during the 2006 beach season, they did not know the source of the contamination, and only 14 percent reported that they had taken actions to address the sources of contamination. State and local officials indicated that an overall improvement in water quality throughout the Great Lakes will require long-term collaborative efforts to address the underlying causes of contamination, as well as increased funding.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2016, GAO reviewed the status of the 2007 Matter for Congressional Consideration. Congress has not reauthorized the BEACH Act of 2000. While one bill was submitted to reauthorize the BEACH Act, it has not been acted on. Specifically, the BEACH Act of 2015 was introduced by Robert Menendez and Frank Pallone in 2015. It does not, however, discuss EPA grants or conditions.

    Matter: As it considers reauthorization of the BEACH Act, Congress may wish to consider providing EPA some flexibility in awarding BEACH Act grants to allow states to undertake limited research to identify specific sources of contamination at monitored beaches and certain actions to mitigate these problems, as specified by EPA.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, in August 2007, EPA published its Critical Path Science Plan to communicate the agency's high priority research that it intends to conduct to establish the scientific foundation for new or revised recreational water quality criteria. As outlined in the Science Plan, EPA intends to conduct ongoing scientific research from July 2007 to December 2010, during which the agency will undertake several scientific studies including rapid water quality testing methods using molecular biology techniques. According to EPA, the agency expects to analyze and synthesize the study results and develop and publish the new or revised recreational water criteria and supplementary information from January 2011 to December 2012. Following issuance of the plan, EPA further refined its timeline for completing the studies on pathogens with the following key dates: EPA will complete an epidemiological study in a tropical region no later than December 15, 2010. EPA will complete an epidemiological study in marine waters impacted by urban runoff in a temperate region no later than December 15, 2010. EPA will sign for publication in the Federal Register a notice of availability of new or revised water quality criteria for pathogen or pathogen indicators by October 15, 2012. The Criteria Development Plan date was December 2012.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA complies with the requirements laid out in the BEACH Act, the Administrator of EPA should establish a definitive time line for completing the studies on pathogens and their effects on human health, and for publishing new or revised water quality criteria for pathogens and pathogen indicators.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's 2007 recommendation, in 2008 EPA announced that it was considering retaining the original grant formula and implementing another change to address those needs. Specifically, on August 13, 2008, EPA published changes to the allocation formula that the Agency expected to implement starting with the BEACH Act grants to be awarded in 2010 (73 FR 47154). That funding formula change would shift funds from states not fully using their grants to states that use their grant funds and have more beach miles at which they could conduct monitoring and notification. EPA developed a supplemental formula based on beach miles and beach use that applies to any appropriated funds above $10 million and to any unspent funds being reallocated. EPA revised the BEACH Act grant allocation formula effective with the FY2010 grants.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA complies with the requirements laid out in the BEACH Act, the Administrator of EPA should, if current funding levels remain the same, revise the formula for distributing BEACH Act grants to better reflect the states' varied monitoring needs by reevaluating the formula factors to determine if the weight of the beach season factor should be reduced and if the weight of the other factors, such as beach use and beach miles should be increased.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA issued "National Beach guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants" in 2014. GAO followed up with EPA in July 2016 and determined that the guidance meets the intent of the recommendation. Specifically, EPA has developed guidance for states to develop tiered monitoring plans and how to set priorities for monitoring based on risk to human health. EPA included both models and rapid molecular testing methods to be used in monitoring. EPA also developed guidance for states to use Beach Action Values, developed in its 2012 Recreation Water Quality Standards, as the threshold for notifications.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA complies with the requirements laid out in the BEACH Act and to better ensure consistent levels of public health protection, the Administrator of EPA should provide states and localities with specific guidance on monitoring frequency and methods and public notification.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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