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Monitoring of beach pollution falls short

Only 10 of Florida's 35 coastal counties check coastal waters regularly for sewage and other pollution, according to a national study.

Despite its findings, the National Resources Defense Council praised the city of St. Petersburg for its weekly monitoring of water off its beaches, the most frequent check in the state.

The Defense Council's study said that for the state's part, its monitoring of bacteria focuses on protection of sea life, such as shellfish, and not swimmer safety.

Sewage and other pollutants can carry microorganisms that can cause gastroenteritis and such diseases as hepatitis.

"And I thought drug boats in the ocean and syringes being washed up on the beach was all we had to worry about," said beachgoer Mary Carr, standing in the sand at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. "Now it's sewage? It's about time they start paying attention to our lives and welfare instead of other countries."

The 10 counties that monitor beach water to see if it is clean enough for swimmers are Broward, Citrus, Duval, Hillsborough, Lee, Okaloosa, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota, the report said.

Some counties, such as Dade, monitor only after problems such as a sewage spill or treatment plant malfunction, the report said.

The report said two counties increased the frequency of monitoring. Sarasota went from semiannual to quarterly and the number of beaches monitored went from two to 12. Okaloosa County went from semiannual to monthly and in 1996 plans to monitor weekly from May to September, the NRDC said.

Hernando County discontinued its monitoring in 1994 because of budget restraints, the study said. Also, Indian River County's plans for a monitoring program depend largely on whether funding can be obtained from the state, the study said.

Florida ranks fourth in the nation, behind California, Connecticut and Delaware, in beach closings because of high levels of microscopic disease-causing organisms, said Beth Kidder of the Florida Public Interest Research Group.

There were 215 days of beach closings in Florida last year, including 77 at Maximo Beach and North Shore Beach in St. Petersburg, she said.

The U.S. Interior Department calculated the loss of tourism at St. Petersburg to be more than $2.6-million, Kidder said.

Most of the beach closings in Florida were caused by heavy rains, the study found.

Pollutants are discharged into waterways because rains increase of the volume of polluted runoff. The runoff increases the amount of water flowing through sewage systems, so untreated or inadequately treated sewage is discharged into waterways during and after rains.