George Bush is screwing up Mike Bloomberg’s summer. There is, of course, the Republican National Convention, which will bring a million screaming protesters into Manhattan and put half of midtown in security lockdown. But that’s just the beginning. Thanks to the Bush administration, Bloomberg may also have to deal with something even more politically bedeviling: beach closings.
In the past several weeks, Team Bloomberg has quietly been trying to figure out what to do about a new set of water-purity standards that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began implementing in April. Now, with beach season just around the corner, the mayor and his aides have concluded that the new EPA regulations may force him to ban swimming at the city’s beaches on at least a few days this summer.
Mayoral aides are so concerned about the issue that on a recent afternoon, Bloomberg and a half-dozen senior advisers gathered behind closed doors at City Hall to decide what to do about it. They pictured the worst—Bloomberg telling thousands of overheated New Yorkers, at the height of a grueling heat wave, that the same water they happily swam in last summer was suddenly too dirty to take a dip in.
“The feeling was, ‘This could be a disaster,’ ” said an administration source who was later briefed on the meeting. “The EPA is imposing these onerous new regulations, but the mayor will be unfairly tagged with the closings. If Orchard Beach or Coney Island is closed on even one weekend day, the story’s immediately going to be, ‘The mayor won’t let people swim, just like he won’t let them smoke.’ ”
One of the occupational hazards of being mayor, of course, is that you get pilloried for bad news that’s beyond your control, and it’s true that the new EPA regulations have nothing to do with City Hall. They were created by a 2000 federal environmental law that required local health officials nationwide to change the way they evaluate the safety of coastal swimming waters by April of 2004. Officials used to base the decision on the levels of a bacteria called coliform. Now, instead of coliform, they will test for levels of another bacteria, enterococci, found in human and animal feces. The EPA made the switch because its studies showed enterococci was present far more often than coliform in water that got swimmers sick.
“Close a beach and the story will be, ‘The mayor won’t let people swim, just like he won’t let them smoke.’ ”
The new standards could affect not just Coney Island and Orchard Beach but also a dozen lesser-known, mostly private city beaches, including a string on Eastchester Bay and a couple on Staten Island. If enterococci levels rise above a certain count, the EPA’s new mandates dictate that local officials forbid swimming, though in some cases the rules leave wiggle room for warnings instead of closures.
The big worry for the mayor and his aides is summer rainstorms. Heavy downpours can overwhelm city sewers, meaning more water pours off streets into surrounding seawater without passing through treatment plants. This untreated water carries more droppings from birds, dogs, squirrels, rats, and countless other creatures who call New York home—depositing more enterococci in our beach water.
In April, and last summer, city officials ran tests to project possible closures under the new standards. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city’s Health commissioner, declined to predict how many beach closings might result based on the tests. He conceded, however, that Orchard Beach and Coney Island—the two biggest city beaches likely to be affected—could end up closed at least several times each.
Mayoral aides argue that the EPA’s new standard is based on flawed studies conducted in the seventies—studies that don’t reflect today’s research, which, they say, shows that enterococci strains found in animal feces are far less threatening than those found in that of humans. Mayoral spokesman Ed Skyler called the new regs “onerous requirements based on dated science.”
If anything, Frieden says, extensive annual tests show that the quality of New York’s swimming water has improved over the past generation—thanks to billions of dollars’ worth of new waste-water-treatment facilities. The EPA’s new regulations, mayoral aides say, may simply cause unnecessary beach closings.
All this comes just as the mayor ramps up for the 2005 election, and the political fallout could be big. Picture a sweltering August Saturday. The 500,000 would-be swimmers who trek out to Coney Island, or the 35,000 who go to Orchard Beach, get turned away: Sorry, enterococci alert. It’s not hard to imagine what comes next. Manny from Bensonhurst whales on Bloomberg on the six o’clock news, and the tabs helpfully remind prospective voters that their billionaire mayor enjoys the option of slipping away on weekends to the white-sand beaches of a certain island paradise.
It doesn’t help that patrons of public beaches tend to be minorities and working-class outer-borough whites—constituencies the mayor needs for reelection, and whose support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming. (While the most recent Marist Institute poll put Bloomberg’s overall approval rating at 40 percent, up from the low thirties a year ago, his numbers among blacks and Latinos lagged in the twenties, and his support was significantly lower in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens than in Manhattan.)
Enforcement could be another nightmare, with city lifeguards and Parks Department officials perhaps spending their days coaxing people out of the water. And forget blaming the EPA for any of this. “People who use public beaches are the un-air-conditioned portion of the electorate,” says political consultant Norman Adler. “They don’t know from the EPA. They only know their mayor.”
Beach closings could leave the mayor vulnerable to broader attacks as well. Bloomberg has made public health a signature issue—he banned smoking in bars, launched an initiative against childhood obesity, and floated an idea to boot McDonald’s franchises from city hospitals—but the downside is that political opponents have caricatured him as a killjoy-in-chief. Beach closings, notes Adler, “could play very much to that weakness.”
City Hall is trying to persuade the EPA to drop its new standards and come up with a revised set that takes more recent science into account. Mayoral aides may also try to take advantage of the wiggle room in the law. The new regulations may act not as an automatic trigger, they say, but rather as one factor among many in deciding whether closings are necessary. Still, says one official, “we may end up having more closings this year.”
A mayoralty, of course, can be defined by how City Hall handles issues like beach closings. Voters have a funny way of holding mayors accountable for the things that directly affect them. John Lindsay famously failed to plow away the snow in the outer boroughs after a blizzard in 1969, a blunder that almost cost him his job. On the other hand, if a mayor can position himself as an advocate for New Yorkers against something that’s making their lives miserable, he can reap the political rewards. Witness Ed Koch’s turning the 1980 transit strike to his advantage by assailing striking workers as he led dislocated commuters on a raucous march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
If there are beach closings, “Bloomberg will have to decide whether he’s Koch on the Brooklyn Bridge or Lindsay in the snow,” says Adler. “As Charlie Brown once said, he’ll either be a hero or a goat.”