Texas beaches cleaner than many, escape most oil

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By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI Associated Press

GALVESTON, Texas — Texas beaches were cleaner last year than in many parts of the country, according to a report released Wednesday, though a state environmental group attributed the improvement to a two-year drought rather than efforts to prevent water pollution.

Texas also has escaped the worst of the oil that has fouled the Gulf of Mexico and caused 1,755 beach closings and advisories in the region since the oil spill disaster began with the April 20 explosion on the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers.

The annual Natural Resources Defense Council report found that in 2009 there were more than 18,000 beach closings and advisories nationally, the sixth-highest level in the 20 years they’ve been tracked. Texas, however, enjoyed a 27 percent decrease in such incidents, with closings and advisories dropping from 318 in 2008 to 231 last year.

“It’s just raining less. We had a drought,” Environment Texas director Luke Metzger said. “The lack of rain just means the pollution isn’t running off into the Gulf.”

Metzger expects pollution levels for this year to be far worse because of the rainy summer.

“There’s no evidence that they are doing more to prevent it,” he said.

Statewide sampling programs are aimed at reducing bacterial levels and pollution in waterways, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesman Terry Clawson said in a Wednesday e-mail.

Clawson also noted that Houston and Harris County have taken steps to decrease bacteria in sewer lines, including building water detention basins that allow bacteria to settle out before runoff and renovating 950,000 feet of sewer pipes in the past year.

A storm water permit process reaching smaller communities also is expected to improve water quality, he said.

Beach water pollution can expose swimmers to a variety of ailments from stomach flu to hepatitis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently outlining new rules aimed at preventing stormwater runoff. Metzger said the Texas General Land Office has improved the way it informs the public of polluted waters, including a website and a real-time notification system for people in Nueces County, one of the regions with the dirtiest beaches.

The waters of the Texas Gulf are naturally more brown than in other parts of the region because Mississippi River mud and sediment flows west. Algae and other sea plants also are common, making the water appear cloudier.

Yet, of all the water samples taken at 65 of the state’s 169 beaches, only 5 percent had pollution exceeding accepted limits. The national average was between 6 percent and 7 percent.

In 2008, pollution exceeded the limits 6 percent of the time, and 9 percent of the time in 2007.

Texas monitored the 65 beaches once a week. The remaining 104 beaches were not monitored.

Unlike other parts of the Gulf, Texas has not had to close beaches or issue advisories because of the BP spill. While a few tar balls from the leak did wash up in Galveston and nearby beaches, the impact has been minimal.

“We got lucky,” Metzger said. “The currents aren’t washing the oil in this direction.”

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