Health Dept: Dozens of Hawaii Beaches Not Tested for Contamination

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

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.

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