The Brancatelli File



February 15, 1995 -- Stand on the gently sloping hillside overlooking Fleming Beach on Maui's rugged western shore and it's hard to imagine there could be anything wrong with any beach anywhere in America.

The powdery, white sand is clean and pristine. Back on the carefully manicured grass, in the shade of the requisite palm trees, guests of the elegant Ritz-Carlton Kapalua resort loll on glistening chaise lounges. The blue-green waters that gently lap against the shoreline really do sparkle in the afternoon sun. Off in the distance, precariously perched on craggy rocks, Hawaiian fishermen cast 'upena kiola, their throwing nets, into the sea.

The tragedy of this picture-perfect scene is that Fleming Beach has become something of an American oddity. Bluntly put, most of our beaches--on shores east and west, along rivers great and small, and ringing any island that flies the star-spangled banner--are under relentless attack. Pollutants as exotic as giardia (a single-celled protozoa) and as prosaic as the cigarette butt foul our shores, damage the fragile ecosystem, and profoundly threaten the simple American pastime of spending a day at the beach.

Worst of all, what is polluting America's beaches--a sometimes bewildering variety of viruses, bacteria, chemicals, nutrients, and marine debris--is really the only issue in question. Sadly, there is absolutely no drama in determining who is polluting our beaches.

The loutish reprobates who despoil our coasts and endanger what is arguably our greatest natural resource are already well known: We are the enemy. Not the enemy through some form of collective societal guilt. We individually and affirmatively make ourselves the enemy every time we flush our toilets, drive our cars, farm our fields, fish our seas, or carelessly dispose of a plastic container.

The link between the apparently harmless and mundane activities of our daily lives and the growing problem of beach pollution is startlingly direct and incontrovertible. In fact, it sometimes seems that everything we do has an equal, opposite--and polluting--effect on the nation's beachfronts and coastal waters.

The most visible form of beach pollution is what the experts call marine debris and what the rest of us simply call garbage. If our society produces it, Americans are perfectly willing to dump it in the ocean or leave it lying around on the sand.

The statistics are so huge as to be almost incomprehensible and thus meaningless. Still, consider the results of the 1993 national beach cleanup sponsored by the non-profit Center for Marine Conservation. CMC volunteers collected more than 7 million individual items of trash. In Texas alone, volunteers collected more than a ton of debris for every mile of beach cleaned. In Connecticut, they collected 1,840 cigarette butts for every mile of beach they covered, an average of more than one butt per yard of sand. CMC's army of volunteers also gathered more than 40,000 rubber balloons, 25,000 plastic six-pack holders, 300,000 glass and plastic beverage bottles, and another 200,000 metal beverage cans.

Beachgoers are hardly the only source of marine debris. Commercial fishing fleets, military vessels, cruise ships, and pleasure boaters dump untold tons of galley waste, plastic fishing lines and nets, and miscellaneous garbage into the ocean. Consider, for instance, the beaches on Amchitka Island in Alaska: a survey recently determined that commercial fishermen left behind more than 950 pounds of trawl webbing for each mile of beach on the island.

Marine debris is not only harmful to coastal wildlife (a sperm whale found dying on the New Jersey shore in 1985 had a mylar balloon lodged in its stomach and three feet of purple ribbon wound through its intestines), it is not easy to eradicate. Some plastic waste can linger in the ecosystem for 400 years and it has occasionally been the cause of beach closures. Yet its primary effect on the nation's beaches is aesthetic. Not so other, less visual, and much more insidious, types of pollution.

A broad category of invisible pollutants known as pathogens are ravaging our beach waters and coastal estuaries. They bring with them the very real possibility of disease, either from swimming in infected waters or consuming contaminated seafood and shellfish. Among the principal types of pathogenic organisms are viruses such as hepatitis A, the bacteria responsible for cholera and gastroenteritis; and protozoa such as giardia which can cause acute and chronic diarrhea and even death.

Complex and confusing as they may be from a medical standpoint--there are more than a hundred intestinal viruses alone--pathogens reach our beaches and seafood in two simple ways: via raw sewage, sludge and wastewater effluent, or from storm drains that discharge into coastal waters and rivers.

As a nation, we spent $76 billion between 1972 and 1992 to build or expand sewage treatment plants, but it is clearly not enough. Every sewer overflow or malfunctioning septic system compounds the damage. In Santa Monica Bay, California, for example, official records show that some beaches violate health rules more than half of the time. On the east coast, more than 2.5 billion gallons of untreated waste is flushed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, every year. And eight coastal states don't even monitor pathogenic activity on a regular basis.

The effects of pathogenic pollution can be measured both by the startling number of beach closures in recent years, and the appalling outbreak of disease directly attributable to swimming in unfit waters or consuming contaminated seafood. During 1992 and 1993, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 23 coastal states were forced to declare almost 5,000 beach closings or advisories. And during the last decade, the first indigenous outbreaks of cholera in the United States since 1911 were reported in Louisiana and directly traced to shellfish taken from pathogenically polluted coastal marshes.

Still another form of dangerous pollution is a category the experts call nutrients. Simply stated, nutrients are chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Even small amounts of excess nutrients pumped into coastal waters can set off a horrifying ecological chain reaction: the nutrients overfertilize seabeds and cause massive increases in the blooms of algae and phytoplankton; the blooms deplete oxygen as they decay, lead to mass kills of fish and invertebrates, and even smother coral reefs.

Where do excess nutrients come from? From us, of course, usually in the form of sewage, fertilizers, sediment, and even runoff from feedlots. (In Buttermilk Bay on Cape Cod, for instance, 74 percent of the nitrogen comes from septic systems and 23 percent comes from lawn and agricultural fertilizers.) Large doses of excess nitrogen also reach our beaches from the atmosphere: automotive and smokestack emissions are a main source of airborne nitrous oxides.

If nutrient-based pollution sounds exotic and unfamiliar to you, perhaps you know it by several more colorful names. The so-called "brown tide" that wiped out bay-scallop beds and eelgrass bays in Long Island Sound several years ago was caused by nutrient pollution. So are the periodic "red tides" that plague many of the nation's seashores.

There is sporadic good news on the beach-pollution front, of course, but there is also one unavoidable conclusion: things are going to get worse before they get better. Why? Because we, individually and as a nation, seem to have a fatal attraction for the sea.

By the year 2010, the coastal population of the United States will have grown to more than 127 million from 80 million in 1990. And given our dismal record tending the aesthetic and ecological imperatives of our nation's beaches and coastal waterways, it seems inevitable that more people can only mean more pollution.

This column originally appeared in Popular Science magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.