Water woes at Gallagher Beach

 

Gallagher Beach has a serious bacteria problem.

The bacteria counts at the unofficial beach on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor – which local, state and federal officials want to open for public swimming – exceeded safe levels more than two-thirds of the time in tests conducted last summer.

The test results are included in a 181-page study Investigative Post recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. The state has not officially released the report to the public.

“The results are that this is not a safe place to swim,” said John Finster, a retired public health engineer who used to manage Erie County’s beach testing program.

The state wants to make the beach a centerpiece of its 190-acre Buffalo Harbor State Park at the Outer Harbor. Officials, however, had no intentions of testing the water quality when they announced plans to open the beach for public swimming. They relented after Investigative Post published and broadcast a series of stories beginning in October 2013, based partly on a critical report by Finster that questioned the suitability of Gallagher Beach for swimming.

Finster wrote in his report that swimming at Gallagher Beach is “probably impractical from a public health standpoint” because of stormwater pollution, sediment contamination and neighboring toxic sites.

The state subsequently agreed to test the water and soils, and the most-recent study underscores Finster’s concerns that Gallagher Beach isn’t ready to be opened.

“There are times when the beach is OK, but not enough times to make it reasonable to open a beach here,” he said.

It’s unclear what the test results mean for the state’s plan to open Gallagher Beach for swimming.

“We are getting closer, but a final decision is premature at this point,” said Randy Simons, spokesman for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which manages Gallagher Beach.

“Swimming will not take place in 2015.”

Simons declined to provide a timeline for a decision on the beach’s future, but said the state will conduct a third round of testing. That study will help narrow down the sources of the bacteria by determining whether the bacteria is associated with human or animal fecal matter or occurring naturally. The most-recent study identified sewer overflows, bird feces, dirty stormwater and runoff from streets and lawns as all potential culprits.

Furthermore, Finster said the testing standards used by the state reveal potential shortcomings in protocols used by the Erie County Health Department to check water quality at five beaches it monitors.

“Erie County should probably start rethinking what testing indicator it’s using,” he said.

Testing found problems

The first round of tests examined the water, sand and beach floor for contamination. The results showed:

  • The beach water had elevated levels of bacteria that would prohibit swimming on some days.
  • The surface water was contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides.
  • The soil below the sand was contaminated at depths as shallow as 6 inches.

Despite these findings, officials at both the state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation concluded there was no exposure concern for swimmers. Officials did, however, recommend a barrier between the sand and dirt to protect beachgoers and a more comprehensive water quality study.

That water quality study, finished in May, found potentially unsafe levels of bacteria in the water on 68 percent of the days tested. That’s more than two months’ worth of daily samples taken from May 31 to Aug. 31, 2014 that were high enough to require a beach closing.

In addition, weekly samples taken at the southernmost section of the beach, a favorite spot for windsurfers, had potentially unsafe bacteria counts on 86 percent of the days tested. Beach sand samples also had high bacteria counts.

Experts interviewed by Investigative Post said not all bacteria is unsafe. The monitoring done at beaches only indicates the potential presence of dangerous bacteria. Tests that actually identify disease-carrying strains are tedious and expensive, they said.

Based on the information presented so far, Finster argued that Gallagher Beach “meets the definition of a public health hazard” in state code.

State officials offered a different perspective.

“There was no undue risk because swimming was not permitted at any time at Buffalo Harbor while the test results were gathered,” Simons said.

People do swim at Gallagher Beach, however.

Testing procedures questioned

In addition to exposing problems at Gallagher Beach, Finster said the study reveals potential shortcomings in Erie County’s testing procedures at the five beaches it samples.

The five beaches — Woodlawn, Hamburg, Bennett, Evans Park and Lake Erie Park— are only tested for E. coli bacteria. This is in line with practices most Great Lakes states follow for freshwater swimming beaches.

But the Gallagher Beach study tested for both E. coli and enterococci, a second type of bacteria that also indicates the potential presence of harmful disease-carrying strains.

The results showed unsafe enterococci levels more than twice as often as E. coli.

“From the results here, it looks like E. coli, which has been the indicator used, understates the potential public health problem,” Finster said.

Elizabeth Herron, program coordinator for the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch, agreed.

“It does muddy the waters quite literally in this case,” she said.

In Rhode Island, beaches get tested for both E. coli and enterococci.

“If that same beach were here in Rhode Island, it would not be open that often,” she said.

“It might be frightening if they started doing that analysis in New York. It might be that other beaches in the state meet the E. coli criteria but not the enterococci criteria.”

Dolores Funke, the director for environmental health for the Erie County Health Department, said the county’s protocol goes above and beyond the state code by using models specific to each beach. These models take into account other factors that can affect water quality, such as wind, rainfall and cloudiness of the beach water.

Funke said the county might end up testing for both types of bacteria in the future, but she is confident the current protocol protects human health.

“What we should probably do first is go back and look at previous studies,” she said.

“It might warrant an additional look realizing, again, that both E. coli and enterococci are markers. We don’t have the ability to test for viruses.”

Swimmers using beach

Mary Skopec, a research biologist and program coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said disparity in bacteria tests isn’t uncommon, but should be grounds for caution. Based on the Gallagher Beach results, she said she’d test for both bacteria if it were a public beach.

“I would be more protective and more cautious,” she said after looking at the Gallagher Beach study.

Skopec noted the study did not address potential solutions to reducing the bacteria counts. In Iowa, she said, beaches are groomed and animal feces are removed from the sand to prevent bacteria spikes.

“I think what those folks ought to be thinking about is what will they do to bring those levels down?” she said.

In the meantime, state park officials declined to say whether they plan to patrol Gallagher Beach to ensure people do not swim there. Three signs state swimming is prohibited because there are no lifeguards on duty.

Rose Pavolko, a local high school biology teacher, believes the state should patrol the beach until a final decision is made. She kayaks there and has seen the effects of pollution.

“This is kind of the first year I’ve seen a lot of dead fish and that indicates that there is very low dissolved oxygen content in the water,” she said. “It could be from a very high bacterial count.”

“I definitely would not want to go swimming there.”