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Cecil County Health Dept. Drops Some Key Beach Testing, Pollution Monitoring in Cost-Cutting Move

May 16, 2014
By Nancy Schwerzler

The Cecil County Health Department has decided to drop summer monitoring of pollution and potential health risks at six local beaches—including a southern county beach adjacent to a dredge spoil dumpsite found to have polluted area groundwater.

The county Health Department is technically a state agency but a significant part of its budget comes from Cecil County taxpayers. And in the currently pending Fiscal 2015 budget, the health agency is tentatively slated to get an extra $345,000 in county funds earmarked only for drug abuse prevention and treatment programs.

But the health agency has decided to cut health monitoring of the beaches because it is only getting $4,600 in state funds to monitor Cecil County beach water quality– down from $14,500 a decade ago, according to a memo sent by Stephanie Garrity, the county health officer, to County Executive Tari Moore recently. Garrity did not specify how much she hoped to save by dropping the local beaches from the monitoring program.

Cecil County has 17 beaches that have been traditionally sampled for health hazards by the county health department. Under state law, the agency must continue testing and monitoring at 10 “public” beaches that hold state permits—including beaches at two state parks in the county. But the county health department says that another 7 “recreational bathing areas” without formal state permits that have been tested and monitored for many years are now considered optional for testing.

Only one of those non-permitted beaches—the Hack’s Point beach along the Bohemia River in southern Cecil County– would continue to be monitored this year, according to the memo, which rated Hack’s Point as a “moderate” priority. What the memo didn’t mention is the fact that Hack’s Point beach brought notoriety to Cecil County several years ago when a national group—the Natural Resources Defense Council—rated it as a “beach bum” as one of the most polluted beaches in the nation.

So 6 other beaches will no longer be tested by the county/state agency, according to the memo. Those beaches are: Chesapeake Isles; Red Point Beach; Hollywood Beach; Greenbank; Knights Island North; and West View Shores. Most of those beaches were only tested monthly in the summer in the past.

(At various times in the past as recently as 2011, the Greenbank beach was cited as one of the most polluted beaches in the state while several others exceeded health safety levels, especially after storms, according to press reports. Past official county beach reports, previously readily available via the Cecil County Health Department website, are no longer available and even external state websites and generic search engines cannot locate the reports, indicating they have been disabled by the Cecil County health agency.)

[UPDATE: Cecil County Health Department spokeswoman Janis Shields said that the past beach reports had not been deliberately disabled by the agency but that there were "server" problems that made the reports unavailable. She said the past history of beach testing reports would be available online "any day now" after fixes to the website were made.]

Garrity’s memo to the county executive stated that in making the decision to stop some beach monitoring, the criteria were “no pollution threats or ecological risk factors.”

The West View Shores beach, which faces the Elk River at its intersection with the Chesapeake Bay, is adjacent to the Pierce Creek dumpsite owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and where shipping channel dredge spoils have created major contamination of area groundwater, according to an independent 2013 study by the US Geological Survey. State, federal, county and Town of Cecilton officials are currently working on a plan to pipe Cecilton town water to area residents because their wells are considered hazardous to health.

The current county beach monitoring program generally tests for bacterial and pathogenic pollutants that might pose a health threat to swimmers, rather than the arsenic and heavy metals pollutants that have been prevalent in many West View Shores wells. But the proximity of the West View Shores beach to the contaminated dumpsite—which for about a year has posted “DANGER” signs warning against access to the area—raises questions about the wisdom of stopping health checks of the adjoining beach. The dumpsite has been closed to new dredge spoils for 20 years, but the Maryland Port Administration plans to resume dumping there within the next year or two.

Cecil County Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1), whose district includes several of the beaches that the health department no longer wants to test and monitor, said he was very concerned about the policy shift. “Protecting the public health is one of the most basic things that our citizens have the right to expect from our government,” he said. “People have a right to know whether it is safe for them, and their children, to swim in our waters.”

County Executive Tari Moore told Cecil Times that Garrity had not informed her of how much money she hoped to save by stopping the monitoring and testing of the six beaches, but added that she would ask for that information. And since the County Council and the County Executive serve as the county’s Board of Health, she said, they would monitor the situation and seek changes if necessary.

Moore said that if any citizens had concerns—and if they observed signs of water quality problems at their local beaches—they should contact the health department and ask for a test and monitoring of water quality matters. Moore also said she would ask the health department to provide educational materials to alert local residents to signs of beach pollution that should prompt a call to the health department for an inquiry.

Cecil Times called the health department’s environmental health officials for comment and was referred to a public information employee, with whom messages were left. Upon the agency’s response, this report will be updated.

[UPDATE: Janis Shields, the public relations officer for the Cecil County Health Department, responded that she had "no information" about how much money the agency hoped to save by not testing the 6 beaches under the new policy. She said the agency did not calculate the dollar amount of the policy change. The burden of testing upon health department staff was a factor, she said, and the beaches that would no longer be tested were "low priority" because they had not demonstrated serious health problems in the past three years.]

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