America’s Coastal Waters, Bays, and Estuaries in Bad Shape


For Immediate Release: Aug 30, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

America’s Coastal Waters, Bays, and Estuaries in Bad Shape

EPA Classifies the Vast Majority of Our Marine Waters “Impaired” by Pollution

Washington, DC — As Americans flock to the beach for the long Labor Day weekend, they are likely to find their coastal holiday destinations under severe eco-stress, according to federal figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Shorelines, bays, and estuaries suffer from high levels of mercury, PCBs, sewage, and urban runoff, fouling both the waters and their marine life.

The latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures indicate that –

  • More than two-thirds (72%) of our ocean coastal shoreline waters are impaired, covering more than 3,300 miles, a stretch longer than the width of the continental U.S.;
  • More than three-quarters (79%) of our bays and estuaries are also impaired, covering in excess of 44,000 square miles, an area about the size of Ohio; and
  • More than 90% of our near coastal ocean waters are also impaired.

True conditions in our oceans may be much worse, as the EPA figures are based on “assessed” waters. Fewer than 8% of shorelines have been assessed while fewer than 13% of near-coastal ocean waters are monitored. By contrast, nearly two-thirds (64%) of bays and estuaries have been assessed.

“South Florida’s ocean waters are in the grips of massive, toxic red tides that may be a harbinger for other states, as climate change warms their waters while they become more nutrient-laden,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA. “The take-away message should be that America cannot keep using the sea as our main pollution disposal system.”

These indices of marine water quality have declined significantly since EPA first started displaying this data in 2012, with more than double-digit percentage increases in impairment for each category.

EPA found the top contaminants of oceans and estuaries to be mercury, PCBs, pathogens, and nutrients. Many of these waters also contain oxygen-depleted dead zones. Principal pollution sources are municipal wastewater, urban storm runoff, and atmospheric deposition of mercury from power plants.

The largest impairment impacts are restrictions on fish and shellfish harvesting. In addition, the marine habitat is becoming more inhospitable as, for example, coral reefs bleach and die.

“The health of our oceans transcends the role of any one state and requires national, and in some cases, international involvement,” added PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing with concern to EPA plans to turn greater clean water responsibilities over to states. “The increasing vulnerability of America’s marine environment demands that EPA shoulder, not shirk, its Clean Water Act responsibilities.”


See the EPA impairment figures on coastal waters, bays, and estuaries

Look at widespread rising impairments of our rivers, lakes, and reservoirs

Revisit EPA effort to dramatically cut the scope of the Clean Water Act

Phone: 202-265-7337

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Silver Spring, MD 20910-4453

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