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Great Lakes Article:

State wants bacterial monitoring of beaches but cuts grants for it

July 27, 2002

By David Poulson
Lansing Bureau


LANSING -- At the height of the swimming season, Michigan officials are eliminating $150,000 in grants that some local health agencies were counting on to help monitor beaches for bacterial contamination.

The cuts come just as environmental groups released a nationwide report Wednesday highlighting polluted beaches and the need to increase monitoring.

And they are happening on the heels of recent state legislation requiring public beach owners to post whether a beach is monitored, an action designed to encourage more monitoring.

"They say we ought to be doing this and on the other hand they're saying they're not releasing any money for beach monitoring," said Mark Bertler, director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. "This has stalled an initiative that should be gaining momentum and resources rather than losing them."

Bacterial monitoring checks for sewage overflows and other contamination that can make swimmers ill. Some local health departments monitor some beaches with local funds and close them if the contamination is too great.

The state funds, which have been given out the previous two years, were designed to encourage more monitoring. The money comes from the $675 million bond proposal voters approved in 1998 for a variety of pollution control and cleanup programs.

But treasury officials say the state's tight budget has made them reluctant to take on more debt and perhaps threaten the state's credit rating.

"More bonds will likely be issued down the road, but there is no certain timetable on that," said Terry Stanton, spokesman for the state Department of Treasury.

Sixteen counties applied for the grants that the state planned to award before this summer. The awards were held up during budget negotiations, but until this week the state had still planned to give them out. Not every county would have received money, as the requests were more than double what was available.

"The cold hard fact is that these are tough times for the state," said Ken Silfven, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, which administers the program.

The Natural Resources Defense Council released a nationwide report on monitoring Wednesday that noted that last year Michigan had 119 beach closings, including three that lasted for more than two months each.

That's down from 276 closings reported the previous year, but comparisons are difficult because testing standards are inconsistent and different counties monitor each year, said Cyndi Roper, Michigan director of Clean Water Action, one of the groups that released the report.

The report says that 57 percent of Michigan's beaches were monitored at least once a week in 2001. It does not include data from this summer.

The report, which is on the Internet at www.nrdc.org, said there were at least 13,410 closures and advisories nationwide in 2001, compared with 11,270 the previous year.

A DEQ Web site that lists beach closings is a step in the right direction, Roper said. But the information is often outdated.

The delay is in part due to the 18 hours it takes for a health department to process a test. But counties aren't required to post their results on the site, and many don't have the funds to input the data, said Shannon Briggs, who coordinates monitoring for the DEQ. "The limiting factor with all this data is money."

Twenty-nine counties are monitoring beaches this summer, down from 44 that did it last year, Briggs said.

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