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 states beaches ranked seventh worst in the nation for water quality, according to the National Resources Defense Councils 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 agencys 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 DHECs 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 dont want pollution reports interfering with tourism.
Pressure or not, DHECs 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 isnt warnings from DHEC or the NRDC, its 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.