LOS ANGELES — To a degree unsuspected by most who use it, one of the world's top playgrounds - America's shoreline - is at risk from litter above and sewage below.
As 180 million sunbathers and swimmers flock to America's beaches this summer, they will encounter an exotic array of sands and shoals. But they will also discover personal and public waste-disposal problems that stretch from sea to unshining sea.
After 20 years of increased public focus on education and legislation, the progress report on beach pollution is still mixed.
More countries - now 79 - have ratified the 1978 international treaty that regulates the dumping of waste at sea. That has helped. But at home, enforcement of disparate local, state, and national laws is erratic, and some environmental groups charge that the recent political trend has been to chip away at the pillars that only loosely hold them up.
"It is sobering to note that while we are seeing the majority of serious beach pollution problems continuing or even rising, there is no major impetus to tighten controls," says Dare Fuller, author of a national study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group in Washington. "Instead, Congress and the nation's governors are examining proposals to severely weaken existing laws."
This is not to say progress has not been made. Some of the nation's most polluted bays - such as California's Santa Monica Bay and San Francisco Bay, Massachusetts' Boston Harbor, and Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay - have become cleaner over the past 20 years. In those cases, citizens and activist groups continue to clamor for improvement. This month, for example, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a blueprint of new pollution requirements for communities around Santa Monica Bay.
Even so, the 5,870 miles of beach that ring the US often resemble an ashtray waiting to be emptied. A record number of rainstorms in 1995 rinsed untold amounts of urban debris down storm drains and into bays before backwashing it onto shore.
A burgeoning menu of foreign detritus is still topped by old standards - bottles and cigarette butts, according to a just-tallied 1995 national survey. But beach pollution now includes exotic, nonbiodegradable trash such as space-age Kevlar fishing line, Mylar balloons, and cyalume plastic light sticks. Some beaches resemble outright dumping grounds, as well. The survey reports an increase in items such as furniture, automobile parts, and appliances.
"During the past 10 years, the problems and sources of beach trash are more understood than at any time in the past," says Seba Sheavly, US coordinator of the International Coastal Cleanup, a yearly beach-monitoring campaign sponsored by the Center for Marine Conservation, an environmental organization in Washington. "But the general perception that this has been translated into solutions is wrong."
And, warn other monitoring organizations, the real pollution is encountered after beachgoers get wet. Beneath the swirling azure surf, particularly adjacent to large cities, may be a toxic soup of human waste, pesticides, car grease, and parking-lot oil. Such pollution prompted 3,522 beach closings and advisories nationwide in 1995 - 50 percent higher than in 1994.
In California alone, where the $65 billion tourism industry relies on an attractive shoreline, there were 1,300 beach closings (up 390 from 1994) - nearly 1 every 5 days. "It's hard to find a beach that you can consider totally clean and safe," says David Beckman, Los Angeles director for the NRDC. "It's bad for beachgoers and business."
Since the 1994 elections, when Republicans took control of Congress and a number of statehouses, the political priority has been to reduce government intrusion into citizens' lives - a philosophy that has carried into environmental regulation. In addition, economic pressures from the recession of the early '90s refocused attention toward jump-starting the economy and away from preserving wildlife.
"Politicians reflect what they read as the most pressing needs of their constituencies," says Jack Kyser, director of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. "Right now, the reading is how to get business back on its feet."
The 1972 Clean Water Act, the principal federal law designed to prevent the pollution of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, came before Congress for reauthorization in 1992. Still-pending proposals would reduce controls over key sources of pollution by establishing broad waivers for secondary treatment of sewage in coastal cities. It would repeal storm-water permit requirements, authorize sanitary-sewer overflows, and weaken existing programs to prevent polluted runoff.
Emboldened by recent studies, US Rep. Frank Pallone (D) of New Jersey July 11 introduced the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure, and Health Act of 1996 (BEACH). The bill would amend the Clean Water Act to establish uniform beach water-quality testing and monitoring. It also calls for the development of better indicators for detecting risks to human health. Similar bills have passed the House in previous sessions, but never cleared the Senate.
Embattled from without, and fighting continued funding battles from within, key coastal environmental monitoring organizations are trying to heighten public awareness as best they can.
In a national study titled "Testing the Waters - Who Knows What We're Getting Into?" the NRDC charges the federal government with a lack of leadership in setting nationwide beach-protection guidelines or uniform standards for beach closings and advisories.
Despite a burgeoning army of new chemical threats from pesticides and cleaners, for example, only five states comprehensively monitor water quality off all their beaches. Eight states lack any regular monitoring and 14 - including California and Florida - monitor only a small proportion.
The Clinton administration, for its part, notes that the EPA is considering setting a national safety standard for beaches, but that currently the Clean Water Act makes states responsible for setting and enforcing water-quality standards.
Some observers say that adequate laws are in place but that enforcement is lacking. "Many states have decent regulations on the books," says Ms. Sheavly. "Are they being enforced? Not all the time."
But not all the news on beach pollution is bad. Shamed by campaigns to halt the dumping of waste, the cruise industry has curtailed the amount of debris dumped at sea. "The cruise lines have done a lot to clean up their act," says Bruce Ryan, International Cleanup Campaign director in Florida. "A couple of hefty fines and some full-page ads made them realize they were polluting the very spots that drive their industry."
New tools have also helped coastal authorities crack down on violators, such as chemical monitors that helped the US Coast Guard track an offshore tanker that had illegally emptied its bilge water off Galveston, Texas, last year.
Adopt-a-beach programs, too, have made headway in several states. That kind of citizen concern - from local schools to chambers of commerce - is what is needed, officials say. "One of the public attitudes we have found to be way off-base is the feeling that one person can have no impact," says Sheavly. "The individual can play an important role."