Ocean water tests to begin May 12

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A family splashes in the ocean. County officials say regular testing and periodic flyovers by the state Department of Environmental Protection help make sure the water is clean and safe. - file photo by Jen Marra A family splashes in the ocean. County officials say regular testing and periodic flyovers by the state Department of Environmental Protection help make sure the water is clean and safe. End to EPA flights of little concern in Cape May County

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – A federal plan to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Coastal Crusader” summer flyover program of monitoring waters and beaches along the coast of New Jersey shouldn’t have an impact on monitoring water quality in Cape May County, an official said recently.

The county gathers its own weekly water samples throughout the summer, and the state operates a helicopter off the coast to spot floating debris, oil slicks, fish kills and algae blooms in the ocean, said Linda Wilde, division director of the Cape May County’s Environmental Health Services.

“We get more information from the NJDEP than we do from the EPA,” Wilde said. “The state helicopter flies six days a week, and we get more information from them.”

The state apparently agrees.

“The end of EPA’s helicopter surveillance program is a bit of a blow because they were additional eyes in the skies,” said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“Where I think we’re more likely to feel the pinch with EPA bowing out is north of Sandy Hook because we don’t fly over New York Harbor and EPA did,” he said.

Considine said the DEP helicopter ranges up and down the shoreline, from Cape May to Sandy Hook.

“We’ve had good success with it and we take pride in our own very keen eyes in the sky,” he said.

The EPA’s helicopter also traveled up and down the coast, spotting what are known as floatables. However, in a recent statement, the agency said budget cuts forced it to ground the helicopter.

U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez, Cory Booker and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone called the move shortsighted.

In a joint press release, Booker and Menendez said: “The agency’s decision to eliminate the helicopter monitoring program is foolish and potentially dangerous.  Floating debris threatens marine life, and poses a public health risk to swimmers, fishermen and others along the Jersey Shore.”

But the county’s program is strong, Wilde said, and with the help of the DEP’s flyover program, Cape May County waters will be under scrutiny all summer.

“I don’t foresee an impact on the local level,” she said.

The division director said the county summer program of monitoring water quality begins on May 12 and runs through Labor Day. According to a statement from the county, this year’s plan calls for sampling 61 ocean sites along the coast, and one site on the bay.

Sites are sampled every Monday, Wilde said, and those samples are shared with the state.

With the monitoring, the county tests the level of enterococcus bacteria, and according to the statement, the level of that bacteria is a good indicator of possible contamination.

“The bacteria comes from debris in the streets,” Wilde said. “Dog waste. Human waste. Bird waste.”

The biggest offender, Wilde said, is dog waste.

“When a big rainstorm comes, it washes everything in your gutters out into the ocean, and therefore polluting the ocean,” Wilde said.

That’s why it’s so important to clean up after the family pet, she said.

“A lot of people throw the dog waste into the gutter, and the rain comes down, and it washes out the outfall pipes.”

Considine said the state sanitary code requires that the concentration of enterococci not exceed 104 parts in a 100 milliliter sample, a little less than half a cup.

“When it exceeds that standard, additional sampling is conducted and continues each day until it goes below the standard,” he said.

“If two successive samples exceed the standard, the bathing beach closes until it goes below.”

Considine also said that regional health agencies may also close beaches at any time at their discretion.

Bacteria levels change with the weather, tides, and currents, according to the county statement. The levels are usually highest near storm water pipes, especially during and after rainfall.

The county said that anyone noticing an algae bloom should call both the DEP at 877-927-6337, and the county Health Department at 609-465-1209.

According to the statement, local police departments are responsible for medical waste, but it should also be reported to the DEP at 877-WARN-DEP.

For more information about the program, call 609-465-1209. The public can also check the county’s Water Quality Hotline at 609-463-6581.

Any beach closings will be on the hotline, as well posted to cmchealth.net.

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