Hawaii beachgoers could be swimming in waters containing dangerous levels of bacteria and not even know it.
That’s because the Hawaii Department of Health didn’t test dozens of beaches that it was supposed to in 2011 — including some of the state’s most popular.
And it could get a lot worse. The federal Environmental Protection Agency wants to cut money that Hawaii needs to carry out the sampling program.
“The future funding for the beach program and all of our EPA funds are in jeopardy,” said Gary Gill, the health department’s deputy director of environmental health. “And I can tell you we are going to have to assume reduced services, whether it be monitoring or enforcement or permitting as our funds are going to be continually restricted.”
In a recently released report, the Natural Resources Defense Council, compiled data from 30 coastal states, including Hawaii. It found that in 2011, 4 percent of Hawaii’s beaches tested positive for high levels of fecal matter that can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses. Beaches on Kauai scored the worst. Hanalei Beach Park, Kalihiwai Bay and Kee Beach all tested above safe limits for bacteria about one out of five times.
But a closer look at the data shows that the state only tested a fraction of Hawaii’s beaches and that of those that were tested, many were sampled infrequently.
Hawaii has 460 public beaches that stretch along 300 miles of coastline. In order to be in compliance with the federal Beach Act, passed in 2000, the state is required to come up with a plan for testing the beaches — the EPA monitors the state for compliance.
Overall, the state tested 25 percent of its beaches last year. By comparison, Massachusetts tested 94 percent of its 630 beaches, California tested about 70 percent of its 700 beaches and Florida tested about half of its 630 beaches, according to a Civil Beat analysis of data published by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The state had planned to test about 160 beaches in 2011, but it only sampled about 110.
Oahu beaches had the least testing. Samples were taken from 17 percent of the beaches, even though Oahu’s beaches attract far more people than those on the neighbor islands.
Frequency of use is a primary criteria in determining how often beaches need to be monitored, according to Janet Hashimoto, a manager in the EPA’s Region 9 water quality standards division, which includes oversight of Hawaii.
The state’s “gathering place” is home to 75 percent of the state’s population, attracts more than 4 million tourists a year and is the island’s major shipping hub.
Testing on Oahu has been less than the neighbor islands because of significant budget cuts, according to Gill.
Oahu used to have a lot more people tasked with sampling. But a few years ago, four out of five of the positions were eliminated amid state budget constraints, he said.
Gill said that the one employee left on Oahu is stretched thin.
“Substantial cutbacks in our staff have left just one person on Oahu to monitor beach water while he is doing multiple other tasks,” he said.
Kauai and Maui have one person doing testing and on the Big Island there are two people. The health department also contracts with the Surfrider Foundation to conduct testing on Kauai, which is why more samples may have been taken on that island, Gill noted.
While many beaches went untested, Hawaii’s health department also tested many beaches less frequently than had been outlined in its plan.
Oahu’s Fort DeRussy Beach Park, which attracts flocks of tourists and locals every week, was supposed to be tested once a week, according to the state plan. But it wasn’t tested all year. The same goes for Kahala Beach Park and Kahala Hilton Beach. Ewa Beach was supposed to be sampled twice a week, but was only tested three times in 2011. On the Big Island, nearly 20 beaches that were supposed to be sampled at least twice a month were never tested.
Enforcement by EPA is also lacking.
While all states are required to come up with plans for testing beaches, which are reviewed by the EPA, there are few consequences if states don’t comply.
The EPA only steps in if there are major deviations from the state’s plan, said Hashimoto.
“If they start to significantly alter those plans, then we would have some concerns,” she said. “That is when we usually meet with them and discuss performance.”
She said that the EPA was aware of the state budget cuts and asked the health department to at least maintain testing of priority beaches — those categorized as Tier 1.
“Their staff got gutted,” she said. “That pretty much reduced significantly their monitoring. It’s always a concern. So when we heard of that, we asked them if they could continue to do Tier 1 beaches.”
Hawaii’s health department did test all but one of its Tier 1 beaches last year. But the frequency with which it carried out the sampling was often significantly below what it outlined.
For instance Malaekahana Bay on Oahu was supposed to be tested four times a week. But it was only tested six times the whole year. Waimanalo Beach Park was supposed to be tested twice a week, but sampling only happened about once a week. Chun’s Reef was supposed to be tested twice a week, but was only tested five times during 2011.
Hashimoto said that Hawaii’s health department has a history of good compliance with federal requirements.
States could be at risk of losing federal funds, however, if they don’t meet minimum EPA requirements. Hawaii has received tens of thousands of federal dollars to carry out the sampling during the past decade — last year it received about $320,000.
The grant money comes with conditions. The EPA requires that the states comply with plans for priority beaches.
The health department divides beaches into three tiers and the EPA only requires the state to meet the plan laid out for its Tier 1 beaches.
Gill said that even with the federal funds, state funding cuts over the years have left the health department with limited resources to carry out testing at the levels it did in the past.
And the situation is expected to get worse. The EPA has proposed cutting state funding to carry out sampling. The cuts, which total $10 million, would take effect for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2012.
The funding can mean up to 50 percent of a state’s budget for carrying out the testing, and in Hawaii it has covered the salaries of staff and lab support.
Funding cuts also could mean less public disclosure of data on beach safety. The state health department is required to make the information about sampling public, which it does on its website, and maintain a database of test results that is available to the public in electronic form upon request.
If the states are no longer receiving federal funds, they will no longer be required to comply with federal standards created by the EPA, said Hashimoto.
States will still have to comply with the Clean Water Act which regulates discharges of pollutants into waterways. But in many ways the Beach Act puts the teeth in the Clean Water Act when it comes to recreational beaches.
“With the Clean Water Act, we don’t have any specific requirements,” said Hashimoto in regards to testing levels. “It’s not real prescriptive.”
Report by the Natural Resources Defense Council: