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EPA chief defends cuts to beach water testing

February 28, 2012 |  9:20 pm

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday defended the Obama administration’s plan to eliminate federal funding for health testing at beaches nationwide, telling lawmakers that it is the role of state or local government to monitor whether water is too contaminated to swim in.

At a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson faced criticism from coastal area lawmakers over the proposal to do away with $10 million in grants it has given each year to state and local agencies to test for tainted water.

Jackson called the cuts “one of the tough choices” in the agency’s new budget, adding: “This is simply the federal government saying that this really is a state or local function. It’s best done that way … and that our time for funding this ... is over and it’s time for those communities to take over.”

Before announcing the cutbacks two weeks ago, the agency had credited its grant program with tripling the number of beaches nationwide that are monitored for pathogens. Local health officials use test results to post warning signs or even close beaches when bacteria levels indicate the water is too contaminated.

“I’m just afraid that without these grants the trend will reverse itself and many states will just choose to stop monitoring many of their beaches,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) told Jackson during Tuesday's hearing.

California, which is eligible for about $500,000 a year through the federal program, could have to cut back beach testing unless officials find other sources of funding, state officials have said. The proposal would also eliminate the bulk of the money used to test Florida’s beaches, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) told Jackson that she found the EPA’s justification for the cuts “absurd” and said that without funding, county environmental health officials in California would have to drop testing.

“EPA needs to partner with our local communities, not leave them out to dry,” Capps said.

Environmentalists have railed against the cuts, with groups such as the Surfrider Foundation calling them "the single largest attack on marine water quality standards in a decade."

Swimming in polluted water exposes people to pathogens that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes and ear, eye and staph infections. Less testing, water quality advocates say, would put swimmers and surfers at greater risk of getting sick.

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-- Tony Barboza

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