But data from the Natural Resource Defense Council report released Wednesday suggests that relatively high rates of harmful bacteria in the Myrtle Beach area are dragging down the state’s overall score.
The annual NRDC report examines all water quality samples collected nationwide last year to check levels of potentially harmful bacteria that stem from pollution and sewage. South Carolina was ranked 7th-worst among the 30 coastal or Great Lake states. The report relied on a new tougher benchmark (known as “Beach Action Value”) than what the Environmental Protection Agency has historically used to determine if the water quality is safe for swimmers.
The report said 15 percent of the water quality samples collected by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) last summer exceeded the Beach Action Value of 60 colony farming units per 100mL of water. Nationally, 10 percent of the water quality samples taken at the nation’s beaches exceeded that level.
“When exposed to (the bacteria), people can get sick with a grim litany of illnesses,” the report’s supervisor Jon Devine told South Carolina Radio Network. “From things as simple, but unpleasant, as pinkeye or stomach flu but also more serious like dysentery and meningitis.”
The Myrtle Beach area had a high percentage of unsafe level samples, with only one beach having less than 10 percent of its samples exceeding the Beach Action Value. Only two beaches south of the Grand Strand had such a high rate. DHEC only collects samples from 33 percent of beaches statewide (although nearly all public access beaches are sampled).
In the past, DHEC has blamed stormwater runoff pipes for high bacteria levels in the Myrtle Beach. Those levels are usually highest after a heavy rain.
“We commonly see that urban runoff is often a driver of pollution at the beach,” Devine said, adding he could not comment on the specific causes in South Carolina.
A DHEC spokesman did not immediately return a call Wednesday.
But Myrtle Beach tourism officials say their beaches are “healthy and suitable for all visitors.” Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Brad Dean called the NRDC report “alarmist” in a statement.”
“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 said. “The Grand Strand’s beaches are clean, safe, and here for the enjoyment of both our visitors and our residents.”
The city is currently working on an $11 million outfall project that will eventually move the storm water discharge pipes further offshore.
Devine said the study used different criteria last year, but the percentage of samples with unsafe bacteria levels was roughly the same as in 2012.