South Carolina beaches had a higher percentage of pollution-tainted surf last summer than all but three other Atlantic coast states, according to a beach water quality report released Wednesday.
About 8 percent of the surf samples taken in South Carolina exceeded national standards for ocean water quality, the Natural Resources Defense Council report said. That meets the national average, but is higher than every south Atlantic state and most states on the north Atlantic coast.
Individually, only New York, Connecticut and Maine had higher percentages of beach water samples that exceeded nationally recommended standards, the report said.
The NRDC’s findings don’t necessarily mean the surf in South Carolina is more polluted than most other places. The Palmetto State tested more frequently last year than some states — meaning South Carolina may simply have been more aggressive at finding problems and warning the public, the NRDC report shows.
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“We should commend them for it,’’ said Jon Devine, a senior attorney with the NRDC, a national environmental group. “It makes sure people are aware of the areas and times when swimming is most risky.’’
But Devine also said stormwater runoff is a major problem for many beaches across the country.
And South Carolina has long-standing issues with surf water quality on stretches of seashore where stormwater drains into the surf. Because of concerns about polluted stormwater, the state and some cities began testing water quality in the late 1990s and warning the public against swimming when bacteria levels soar — usually after heavy rains flush pollutants into the sea.
Swimming in bacteria-laden seawater can give people upset stomachs, head colds and fever, according to a range of national studies. No studies are known to have linked illness to polluted stormwater in South Carolina, but some vacationers individually have complained through the years about illness.
The Grand Strand historically has routed polluted runoff from streets and rooftops onto its beaches. Not only has the drainage gotten into the surf where millions of vacationers swim, but pools that form beneath stormwater pipes attract children to play in the contaminated water.
Beaches in Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach, had the highest average rate of elevated levels in South Carolina, at 11 percent, according to the NRDC report. Data supplied by the NRDC show that part of southern Myrtle Beach exceeded the water quality standard 18 percent of the time. In another stretch of Myrtle Beach, the percentage of samples above the standard jumped from 7.8 percent in 2010 to 13.1 percent in 2011.
In contrast, states on the south Atlantic coast exceeded the standard on average 3 percent of the time. Those on the north Atlantic coast were above the standard no more than 7 percent of the time on average, the report said.
Elevated bacteria levels in South Carolina last summer prompted the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to warn people against swimming a handful of times, agency spokesman Adam Myrick said. Myrick said the state has not issued any advisories this year.
Grand Strand cities are working to resolve the problem of stormwater polluting the surf, officials say. Many seaside drainage pipes carry warnings not to play in stormwater pools. The state also warns the public against swimming when bacteria levels soar or before heavy rains are expected to send more polluted stormwater into the surf.
Additionally, cities in the Myrtle Beach area have begun removing drainage pipes from the beach and installing long pipes that shoot the stormwater offshore beyond the breakers — a move NRDC and Grand Strand officials say has improved water quality in certain areas. At one point, Myrtle Beach, the state’s biggest resort, had about 150 drainage pipes emptying onto the seashore.
But it will take years to get all the pipes off the beach. Each ocean outfall project costs about $10 million, Myrtle Beach city manager Tom Leath said.
“It’s going to be a long time before we finish all that,” Leath said.
The NRDC’s report is an annual assessment of pollution along beaches where people swim. The report, which looks at 2011 data, says the United States had the third-highest number of beach closings or swim advisories since the NRDC began issuing the annual assessment 22 years ago.