June 27, 2014 at 10:06 am

Tougher federal standards put Michigan beach testing funds in jeopardy

Mike D'Angelo, 56, and his grandson, Tyler D'Angelo, 5, both of Macomb Township, find a piece of drift wood on the beach at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township, where a $100,000 beach testing program started this year. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Michigan could lose $266,000 this year in federal grant money that allows it to test waters at area beaches, because it hasn’t adopted a tougher pollution standard that many claim will lead to unnecessary closings.

The state faces the grant loss because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now requires coastal and Great Lakes states to use a new water cleanliness level — the point at which local monitoring agencies are required to either issue swimming advisories or close beaches.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials don’t like the tougher standard, which doesn’t affect the current summer testing season, and hope the federal agency changes its mind to restore more than $260,000 a year for next year’s beach testing season. But they are preparing for an eventual loss of federal money.

“We estimate this will increase beach closures by three to seven times,” said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the DEQ and coordinator of the state’s beach monitoring system.

It’s unclear which states have accepted the new standard to keep the stream of federal dollars coming in, but many of them, including neighboring Wisconsin, have criticized it.

An EPA spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday, but the agency’s new standards are supported by environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We are pushing protections for the public when they go to the beach,” said Josh Mogerman, a group spokesman. “Beaches are the place people go where they deal directly with water pollution. We are supportive of this standard that’s more protective of human health.”

For decades, states have tested their swimming waters for E. coli to prevent health problems such as diarrhea, nausea and serious infections.

The testing standard has been 235 E. coli bacteria colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water per sample, although the EPA approved Michigan for a standard of 300 units. The new “beach action value” is 190 units.

But where other states often rely on a single sample at each testing site, Michigan uses three per site for each test to prevent a single tainted sample from skewing results.

By state law, the DEQ cannot switch testing standards without an act of the Republican-controlled state Legislature, meaning it could take several months or longer before Michigan could comply with the EPA’s directive.

Michigan environmental officials aren’t the only ones unhappy with the new criteria. In a report released this month, the coastal and Great Lakes states provided a host of negative reactions to the EPA’s plans for the new beach water standard:

■“Making grant availability contingent upon numeric pseudo-criteria is questionable at best and not the proper legal venue for instituting numeric criteria,” wrote an official with Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management. “If implementation of the Beach Action Value is required to continue receiving grant money, removal or reduction of grant money will negatively affect future beach monitoring programs.”

■“If adopted as written, the guidance proposals ... will reduce the Florida Department of Health’s ability to conduct the monitoring program as it exists, thereby deleting more than nearly two-thirds of the (state’s) 240 monitored beaches,” wrote W. David Polk, Florida’s state healthy beaches coordinator.

■“We do not see the logic ... of requiring the state’s beaches to be regulated at a new value ... while EPA undergoes the adoption process for the National Recreational Criteria,” wrote Sanjay Sofat, of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. “The state and local authorities in Illinois that are responsible for regulating beaches will find it extremely difficult to deal with this new value for the few years in the interim.”

Donalea Dinsmore, who heads beach monitoring programs for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, said the 190-unit standard will do more harm than good.

“For some beaches, this will have only a minor effect,” Dinsmore said. “Some will see many more impacts. Those we have designated as impaired will certainly see more closures.”

The additional money required for the testing and retesting to meet the new standard will likely take away from Wisconsin’s efforts to modernize water testing, she said. It wants to use modeling to predict contamination scenarios and new testing methods that provide results in two hours, instead of the traditional 24 hours or more.

Federal funding for tests is administered through the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act. In the past four years, Michigan has received from a low of $261,000 in 2013 to a high of $291,000 in 2011.

State officials already are preparing for the loss of federal money. The department’s approved budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 includes $500,000 to bring quicker testing technology next year to 10 sites across the state.

It is building on a $100,000 pilot program started this year at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township.

“With respect to the funding for testing over the long term, we believe that in one way or another federal support for beach monitoring is going away — whether that’s through the onerous conditions EPA is putting on the states or the fact the president has eliminated this funding in his last several budgets,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel.

“Michigan needs to take steps for the long term that protect its residents.”

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Friends and co-workers Samantha Zoppa, 29, and Mike Montgomery, 28, both ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)