MA - ‘Better off flipping a coin’: Beach advocacy organization wants state review of water quality flagging accuracy

A beach advocacy organization is calling on Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to direct the state Department of Public Health to review water quality flagging accuracy for all ocean beaches in the state, arguing the system used to broadcast if water is safe to swim in is “fundamentally flawed.”

Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, an organization focused on metropolitan beaches in the greater Boston area, argues accuracy is flawed and needs to be “fixed” because flags are based on water quality results from the day before.

“It appears as if you would be better off flipping a coin than believing a red flag on our ocean beaches,” Save the Harbor/Save the Bay Executive Director Chris Mancini said in a statement earlier this week. “The results are not surprising, but they are very disappointing. For example, half-way through the summer, 100% of the required postings and corresponding red flags on Constitution Beach in East Boston have been wrong.”

Operators of ocean beaches in Massachusetts, in some cases the Department of Conservation and Recreation, oversee water quality tests that are sent off to labs and processed over the course of 24 hours.

Those results are then used to inform water quality flags — red means stay out of the water, blue means clean water. The water quality testing criteria is approved by the Department of Public Health, and results are posted on their website that DPH has said is “near real-time.”

In a statement to MassLive, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health said the agency is responsible for issuing permits to operate beeches at state property and provides training to local health departments. It is the responsibility of the beach operator “to ensure that day-to-day operation is conducted.”

“Under the regulations both state and local beach operators are required to regularly monitor water quality and notify DPH immediately when the water is unsafe for swimming,” DPH said. “The regulations require that the notification be immediately followed by, or conducted concurrently with, the physical posting of signs at the beach that warn visitors that the water is unsafe for swimming.

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