Myrtle Beach water quality numbers don’t add up

An environmental group’s annual report of beach water quality monitoring says that the Grand Strand had generally dirtier water in 2013 than 2012.

Not if you’re comparing apples to apples.

The Natural Resources Defense Council used a new, higher benchmark to look at 2013’s statistics that said ocean water quality in Myrtle Beach registered over the standard 23 percent of the time. But if you compare 2013 with the same benchmark used for the 2012 report, there was no change, said John Devine, the NRDC’s senior water attorney.

For North Myrtle Beach, this year’s report said water quality had worsened by four points in 2013 versus 2012, but it improved a point when using the same benchmark for both years.

“(The report),” Divine said, “doesn’t mean that the water is more contaminated.”

Mark Kruea, spokesman for the city of Myrtle Beach, said he was glad to hear that the information in the most recent report may not paint an accurate picture.

“But the public won’t see that when they read (the report),” he said.

Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the NRDC writes its report to be sensationalized.

“It is true that storm water runoff can occasionally boost test levels higher than normal, but it is for limited sites for a limited amount of time,” Dean wrote in an email. “The Grand Strand’s beaches are clean, safe and here for the enjoyment of both our visitors and our residents.”

Between 2001 and 2009, Myrtle Beach installed three ocean outfalls to route stormwater under the beach to 1,200 feet into the ocean at a total cost of about $20 million. It will begin the installation of a fourth this fall, which is expected to cost more than $10 million.

While Kruea didn't have the exact numbers, he said the outfalls already in place had a huge effect on water quality readings in the areas where they were installed.

"They carry the stormwater under the ocean beyond the surf zone where it is quickly diluted," he said.

Additionally, he said the outfall pipes have screens to catch litter and other debris, which also would result in less-polluted water.

The report did note that the NRDC used a higher benchmark to look at the 2013 water quality monitoring numbers and said that could be an influencing factor. But just how much of a factor wasn’t prominent.

The report also issued its number for Myrtle Beach apparently using just one of the 12 monitoring stations along the city’s 11-mile beachfront. You had to click an icon to see that the reading was based on a reporting station along the south end of Myrtle Beach.

Devine said that the NRDC used all the numbers that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which does the monitoring, sent to the Environmental Protection Agency.

He said the NRDC would change its report if it found there were problems.

“All 12 stations were reported to the EPA,” said Jim Beasley, DHEC spokesman.

Looking at the numbers from just 2013, the most recent available, the NRDC said the state of S.C. improved two spots among the 30 states where beach water quality monitoring is done. They include all coastal states as well as those bordering the Great Lakes.

In 2012, S.C. ranked 26th on the list and climbed to 24th in the most recent report.

Delaware had the fewest reports above the new standard, according to the report, while Ohio had the most.

It was clear from the report of the 2013 numbers, though, that the Grand Strand’s statistics heavily weighed the state’s ranking. Briarcliffe Acres, for instance, had the state’s highest reading at 45 percent of its reports finding 60 colonies of enterococcus per 100 milliliters of water.

The standard used last year, which is still the official EPA standard, was 105 colonies per 100 milliliters.

The Briarcliffe reading likely is due to the fact that some of the homes there are still using septic tanks, and bacteria from them is getting to the ocean. This problem was first identified in a 2001 report done for Horry County, and has been partially addressed.

Briarcliffe Mayor Gary Pell wrote to property owners on October 15, 2013 that while some property owners had voluntarily paid tap-on fees to sewer lines from Myrtle Beach, others had not.

He wrote that the city would ask Myrtle Beach to determine a per house cost for the remainder of the homes and the city would force those who haven’t paid to fork over their share of the completed system.

For the rest of Horry County, a station between Springmaid Beach and Myrtle Beach State Park registered 32 percent of its 2013 reports above the higher standard, according to the NRDC report. Myrtle Beach’s 23 percent came in third while Springmaid Beach was the lowest reported in the county at 9 percent.

Along the rest of the S.C. coast, only monitoring stations in Sullivans Island and Debordieu Beach came in at double digits; 13 percent of the reports from each were above the new benchmark, the NRDC report said.

Devine said the NRDC used the new standard because that EPA has said that the higher quality reading is better at protecting people who go into the water. He said the new mark is only proposed as of now, but if it’s adopted as the official standard, it will be used in determining who gets water quality monitoring grants.