Gulf Coast beaches have been closed or slapped with health warnings nearly 10 times more often this year than last because of the BP oil disaster, according to a report Wednesday that also rated 200 beaches across the country based on 2009 data.
The best beaches for 2009 included several in California, Michigan and New Hampshire — as well as the beach at Gulf Shores, Ala. Ironically, that same beach has been closed during 53 days this year due to the oily waters.
While many Gulf beaches were spared, more than 2,200 closings, health advisories or notices were issued by state or local authorities through Tuesday because of oil from the spill, which began 100 days ago with an April 20 drill rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
That compared with 237 closings and advisories in the same period last year, mainly due to bacteria or viruses in the water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's annual survey of beach water quality.
The NRDC report said the oil spill affected 49 of 253 beach segments it monitors in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Texas beaches haven't had any advisories or closings so far.
Tar balls, oil sheen, globs of crude and petroleum smells have marred some beaches in the stretch since April 20. BP finally capped the well July 15, a temporary measure until the gusher can be plugged underground, but government scientists estimate between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf.
There is little distinction between closings and advisories because it's up to each state to determine whether they want to close a beach or issue a health advisory for swimmers and beachgoers, according to the study.
The organization typically studies bacteria and viruses at popular beaches. The health effects of oil can be similar: rashes, nausea and stomach ailments, said the NRDC's program director David Beckman. Oil also poses long-term neurological and reproduction risks.
"The visual image of seeing oil on a beach or smelling that kind of industrial oil at a place that you go to escape from the city to enjoy nature is really an assault on the senses," Beckman said.
Louisiana beaches were the hardest hit: 11 of the 28 monitored beach segments have been closed this year, with 793 combined days of closings compared to 180 advisory days this time last year.
Florida, which relies most on beachgoers to drive tourism dollars, had only 16 of its 180 northwestern beaches affected, resulting in 442 days of advisories. That compares to no advisory days for the same time last year.
Still, tourism officials as far south as Miami say they're losing business because of a public perception that oil is a threat, even though no crude has landed beyond northwestern Florida.
The NRDC also rated beaches in 2009, awarding 5 stars to swimming areas in Alabama, California, Minnesota and New Hampshire.
While The activist group lists cleanest beaches, the report itself is more of a reminder of pollution problems that can lead to health problems, including human and animal fecal matter washed into waterways during storms.
In 2009, the report emphasizes, America's beaches saw 18,682 closing and advisory days.
NRDC said it analyzed government data on beachwater testing results from 2009 at more than 3,000 beaches nationwide.
"Sewage and runoff pollution in our beachwater is preventable," Jon Devine, senior NRDC water attorney, said in a statement issued with the report. "With investment in cost-effective, smarter water practices that are available today, communities can tackle the most common sources of pollution lurking in the waves."
Ratings were given to 200 of the most popular beaches and were based on indicators of beachwater quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination.
The highest rated (5-star) beaches last year were in:
- Alabama (Gulf Shores Public Beach);
- California (Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington City Beach at the Beach Hut, Newport Beach, Salt Creek Beach at Dana Strands, and portions of Cardiff State Beach and Laguna Beach);
- Minnesota (Lafayette Community Club Beach and Franklin Park at 13th Street on Park Point); and
- New Hampshire (Hampton Beach State Park and Wallis Sands Beach at Wallis Road);
The lowest rated (1-star) beaches were in:
- Florida (Ben T. Davis North, Dixie Belle Beach, Monument Beach, Navarre Park, Quietwater Beach, Simmons Park and Treasure Island Beach);
- Maine (Old Orchard Beach, Long Sands Beach and Short Sands Beach);
- Mississippi (Courthouse Road Beach, Edgewater Beach and Front Beach);
- North Carolina (one section of Nags Head);
- New York (Hamlin Beach State Park, Orchard Beach, Robert Moses State Park Beach, and sections of Rockaway Beach and Coney Island);
- Rhode Island (Narragansett Town Beach); and
- South Carolina (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina State Park and Campground, Springmaid Beach and Surfside Beach).
NRDC said "7 percent of beachwater samples nationwide in 2009 violated health standards, showing no improvement from the previous two years.
"The region with the most contaminated beachwater in 2009 was the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of beachwater samples violated public health standards. For the past five years, the Great Lakes region has tested the dirtiest, while the Southeast and Delmarva Peninsula proved cleaner than other regions."
It added that "individual states with the most reported contamination in 2009 were Louisiana (25 percent), Rhode Island (20 percent), and Illinois (16 percent). Those with the least contamination last year were New Hampshire (1 percent), Delaware (2 percent), and Oregon (2 percent)."
"In 2009, stormwater runoff was the primary known source of pollution at beaches nationwide, consistent with past years," NRDC stated.
"By using a wealth of available, smart water solutions on land – collectively called 'green infrastructure' — we can naturally control and treat stormwater pollution, as well as prevent sewage overflows, to keep waste from reaching the beach. Green infrastructure refers to a variety of practices – such as green roofs, permeable pavement, roadside plantings and rain barrels – that stop rainwater where it falls and either store it for later use or allow it to soak back into the ground."
The ratings for all 200 beaches are at http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/200beaches.asp
The Associated Press contributed to this report.