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Sand Storm

New Bush administration rules could force Michael Bloomberg to close Coney Island and other city beaches this summer. Just in time for election season.


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.”

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