PORTLAND, Maine — State regulators and environmental advocates traded barbs about the health of Maine beaches Tuesday with leaders of the organization Environment Maine accusing the Maine Department of Environmental Protection of misleading the public about bacteria levels in coastal waters.

Department spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren responded by calling the Environment Maine accusations “appalling” and reiterated last week’s DEP announcement that Maine beach waters are the healthiest they have been in four years.

At the center of the debate is the Maine Healthy Beaches program, in which local beach managers around the state volunteer to test water quality — usually at least once each week — and then report to state officials about bacteria levels.

At a Tuesday morning news conference held at Portland’s East End Beach, Environment Maine director Emily Figdor said state data show that while 40 of the 61 beaches participating in the program in 2011 showed water quality tests surpassing the state health standard of 104 coliform or fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, only 18 of those beaches ever posted a health advisory warning swimmers of the high bacteria levels.

Figdor told reporters Tuesday she “was astounded to hear the false and misleading statements made by the Department of Environmental Protection last week.”

“Beach goers are not warned each time a water quality test exceeds the state’s own health standards,” Figdor said.

Melissa Waage of the Natural Resources Defense Council added during the Tuesday news conference that high bacteria levels in beach water can trigger gastrointestinal ailments, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes. The council released its latest report on beach water quality Tuesday, including beach-by-beach testing data from 2011.

“It [creates symptoms of] vomiting, diarrhea — [beach goers] don’t always necessarily realize it’s from the beach water,” said Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne from the environmental advocacy group Friends of Casco Bay during the news conference. “They think, ‘Maybe it’s something I ate.’”

Phil Kronenthal, owner of the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, joined the morning event to talk about the importance of healthy beach water to businesses and the state’s economy. He said Maine’s tourism industry is worth $7 billion annually and that 68 percent of Maine tourists say they plan to visit a beach at some point during their stay.

“Every year, we welcome hundreds of people through our doors from all over the world,” Kronenthal told reporters. “These guests could travel anywhere in the world, but they choose Maine because of the natural beauty and Maine hospitality. … So it’s no surprise that when I hear that the health of Maine’s beaches is threatened — especially when it’s the water right outside my front door — it causes me great concern.”

DePoy-Warren of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection agreed that healthy beach water is important but said she’s baffled by the confrontational tone of Tuesday’s Environment Maine event. She said the coastal water quality data clearly show the beaches are healthier than they’ve been since 2008 and said her agency isn’t responsible for posting health advisories at beaches even if water tests do come back high.

Depoy-Warren reiterated last week’s department announcement that across the 61 beaches taking part in the Maine Healthy Beaches program, only 51 water quality events were recorded in 2011, triggering 112 days of total beach health advisory postings. In 2010, she said, there were 71 water quality events and 207 days of advisory postings.

“This year [Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Defense Council] came after us pretty hard, and I’m not sure what the motivation is, considering this is the healthiest we’ve seen the beaches in years,” DePoy-Warren told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “In terms of making false statements, the data is the data. They use the same data we do. When you have less advisories because you have fewer high bacteria counts and less water quality events, I’m not sure what they’re accusing us of. I’m sure they raised some money today, but they sure didn’t raise awareness about the truth.”

Keri Lindberg, Maine Healthy Beaches coordinator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said the decision of whether to post a health advisory or close a beach outright remains the purview of local beach managers — and Lindberg said the decision is more difficult than simply posting a warning when a single test shows high bacteria levels.

“It takes 28 to 36 hours for the testing results to come in, so we’re working with yesterday’s data [when discussing whether to post advisories],” Lindberg told the BDN. “And things can change pretty rapidly, so what we’re really looking for is trends. At places like Old Orchard Beach, almost 100 percent of the time when the follow-up samples come in, they’re clean. So it doesn’t always make sense to post a beach on yesterday’s information unless everything else aligns.”

Instead, Lindberg said, researchers taking part in the program look for consecutive high bacteria tests or multiple high bacteria tests along a small geographic area in order to confirm signs of trouble. She said officials with the DEP and Maine Healthy Beaches also look for environmental factors, such as recent heavy rainstorms — which flush pollutants into water bodies — in helping decide whether postings are necessary.

Lindberg said a key component of the program is seeking the sources of the high bacteria when it’s found, then working with upstream property owners to control the problems. Oftentimes, DEP researchers find faulty residential septic systems or farm fertilizers stored too close to shorelines and then help those property owners find fixes or alternative practices to spare downstream beaches.

“The work we do is to not only monitor but find the sources of the problems and try to fix them,” DePoy-Warren said. “Our role is environmental protection and educating the public. We have a very different role than [Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Defense Council] do. That’s just not the business they’re in.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.