Our view

Editorial: Go after sources of polluted sea water

July 13, 2014 

  • In summary

    DHEC needs to be more vigilant in warning public about dangers of polluted water along state’s beaches.

Permanent signs warning of potential pollution of sea water along South Carolina beaches are a good idea. But they should be backed up with media advisories and other warnings when pollution rises to dangerous levels.

South Carolina has a big problem with the quality of the water along its beaches. Overall, the state’s beaches ranked seventh worst in the nation for water quality, according to the National Resources Defense Council’s 24th annual study published June 27.

Much of the problem is concentrated along the Grand Stand, which features a large number of ocean-flowing tidal inlets and seaside drainage pipes that channel bacteria-laden storm runoff water directly into the ocean. Data collected by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control show that bacteria levels exceeded the federal safe swimming standard along Myrtle Beach on 45 days from March through October, when swimmers are more likely to be in the ocean.

Swimming in polluted seawater can be hazardous. Those who duck their heads in the bacteria-laced water can develop skin rashes, sore throats, earaches and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach are working to remove the drainage pipes, but the process is expensive and time-consuming. Until the sources of pollution are drastically reduced or eliminated, state regulators charged with protecting public health should be vigilant in warning swimmers about pollution hazards.

Instead, DHEC is doing less, limiting its warnings largely to permanent signs signs near drainage pipes and listings on the agency’s website. While DHEC used to notify newspapers, television and other media, it has issued few special media advisories about surf pollution in recent years.

DHEC issued only two special advisories last year despite the fact that bacteria reached unsafe levels for 45 days along the Grand Strand.

Contrast that approach with the policy in North Carolina, which issues warnings to the media any time bacteria levels exceed federal standards at major beaches. Warning signs also are posted immediately for high pollution levels.

At known trouble spots, North Carolina will conduct multiple tests and post signs if bacteria levels are high in 2 of 3 samples. Permanent signs also are posted at the handful of stormwater drains along the Outer Banks.

We hope DHEC’s reluctance to issue warnings to the media and to seek other ways to notify the public of pollution hazards is not the result of pressure from beach-side communities. The Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce blasted the report by the NRDC, saying it was “alarmist,” and DHEC might also be hearing from community leaders who don’t want pollution reports interfering with tourism.

Pressure or not, DHEC’s first responsibility is public safety. While DHEC officials say signs on the beach are the best way to reach those who might be affected by polluted waters, the agency has more options than it used to.

In addition to traditional media, such as newspapers and TV, people also can be contacted via social media, such as Twitter. We suspect that families planning a vacation along the South Carolina coast would like to know if the water near where they are staying is fit for swimming.

The danger to tourism isn’t warnings from DHEC or the NRDC, it’s dirty water. Unless the state can address the sources of pollution, including the elimination of known sources such as drainage pipes, the problem will persist.

And if South Carolina gets a national reputation as a state with polluted beaches, it might be hard to shake.

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service