The public beach in the city of Fairhope stood out for all the wrong reasons in a nationwide study released today about bacterial contamination. According to a report by the nonprofit Environment America Research & Policy Center, a sampling site at Fairhope Public Beach in Baldwin County tested as “potentially unsafe” for 21 days, more often than any other site in the state, and 35 percent of the days that sampling took place.
Sites were considered potentially unsafe if bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most protective “Beach Action Value” threshold, which the EPA suggests states use as a “conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions,” and is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 per 1,000 swimmers.
Two other sites in Fairhope — Volanta Avenue and the Orange Street pier — were also named for exhibiting “potentially unsafe” conditions 22 percent and 18 percent of the time, respectively. Other locations that made the list in Baldwin County include Camp Beckwith on Weeks Bay, Mary Ann Nelson Beach south of Point Clear, the Orange Beach Waterfront Park, Kee Avenue, Spanish Cove and Daphne’s May Day Park.
The group primarily tested for enterococcus bacteria or E. coli over a period of time in 2018. E. coli is commonly associated with fecal contamination, the cause of which may be urban runoff, sewer overflows and failing septic systems or in some cases, concentrated livestock manure.
The report concluded “American beaches are often unsafe for swimming” and noted that along the Gulf Coast, 329 sites, or 85 percent of those tested, were unsafe for at least one day in 2018.
The city of Fairhope, which as recently as last week was scrutinized over sewer failures due to stormwater infiltration from Hurricane Barry and mechanical problems at a pump station, was quick to issue a response to today’s report after it was picked up and reported on by national news outlets:
“In the city of Fairhope we strive to be proactive concerning the water quality and the health of Mobile Bay. We have identified and started the aggressive rehabilitation for our wastewater collection, transmission and treatment system, and we have the most stringent stormwater quality requirements of any in Coastal Alabama. However, one of our concerns as a municipality is that water quality in the bay can’t be controlled or affected by the act of just one city. The water quality of Mobile Bay is not only a joint effort between the western and eastern sides of the bay but also all our neighbors upstream. The Mobile River Delta System is the second largest in the United States, with nearly 2/3 of Alabama draining into our bay. Failing septic systems, which are used by 1 in 4 Americans, are a serious source of water pollution with a 5-35 percent failure rate. That’s something we can’t control as a municipality. Every failing septic system or any illicit discharge in this watershed affects the water quality in Mobile Bay. There are many factors outside our control, but Fairhope is committed to being a leader in water quality. We encourage everyone to join us.”
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