N.J. ends probe of shore garbage slick with no suspects

Posted: September 12, 2007

NORMANDY BEACH, N.J. - Less than two weeks after New Jersey beaches were fouled by the worst garbage slick in decades, authorities said they've given up trying to identify the polluter.

That means nobody will get to the bottom of the Labor Day Weekend's massive slick of used syringes, tampon applicators and plastic containers that closed beaches in Ocean County. Nor will they know whether that contamination was connected to last week's smaller wash-up of medical flotsam in Cape May County.

Unless investigators receive new information, the probe ends with no suspects, said Darlene Yuhas, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. They continue to believe their initial theory that the junk somehow washed out of New York City storm sewers.

Cape May County Health Department garbage detectives said the 23 items that washed ashore Aug. 30 through Sept. 7 contained nothing that indicated their source.

Authorities had more success with the Normandy Beach slick, which forced the closing of three miles of beaches during the busy holiday weekend.

That slick, which New Jersey officials have now declared the worst beach pollution since the 1980s, contained waste with New York City and North Jersey markings.

Environmental activist Emily Hackett said the importance of her job educating the public about Shore environmental issues hit home when she nearly tripped over Normandy Beach's nasty bounty of household garbage and medical waste that washed ashore Labor Day weekend.

"It was definitely shocking to walk up and see that," said Hackett, 26, a programs coordinator at Clean Ocean Action who unluckily arrived at Normandy Beach with family and friends just as stinking waves of garbage began washing in with the tide.

All that Sunday and into Monday morning, trash continued to collect on the Ocean County beaches. Clumps of debris containing balls of grease and raw sewage, tampon applicators and toilet paper could be seen along the beach. Some plastic bottles contained murky liquid.

Like leaves that drop from the trees and collect on lawns in the fall, household litter – pieces of paper, food packaging, paper dishes, dirty napkins, bottles, cans, plastic lawn chairs – were strewn along the sands. Witnesses reported a golf ball, pieces of wood, juice containers and other waste in the slick of debris that ran along the coastline between Brick Township and Lavallette.

Several beaches were closed for the better part of two days. No one was reported hurt.

By last week, huge Zamboni-like beach rakes had soured the sands and the beaches were reopened, officials said.

Virginia Loftis, a state Department of Environmental Protection research scientist, said environmental officials using helicopters couldn't find any more garbage slicks in the ocean.

Until the junk washed ashore in Cape May County – about 70 miles south of Normandy Beach – there were no other reports of waste on beaches and none has been found since.

Loftis said DEP has been sampling ocean water daily in the affected beaches to make sure the ocean has been clean enough for swimming.

"The water had been so beautiful here the day before and then there was this sickening sight," recalled Mary-Beth Thompson, another Clean Ocean Action worker who also happened to be at Normandy Beach the day the garbage landed.

Despite the nastiness and the blow to the Jersey Shore's tourism image, Loftin points out that the pollution is far different than the last big slick. In 1987, a 50-mile slick of garbage, wood and medical waste washed ashore along New Jersey beaches.

"This wash-up is different," Loftin said. "We had two or three inches of rain in that area of North Jersey and New York and at same time we have antiquated sewage treatment systems in that area."

U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and U.S. Rep. Frank J. Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to investigate how the contamination happened. Neither agency has said whether it will open a probe.

Environmentalists said they hope the pollution will illustrate what they say is a need for stonger clean water initiatives across the U.S.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council's annual "Testing the Waters" report cataloged a record 25,643 nationwide beach closures or warnings in 2006 because of high levels of harmful bacteria.

The number of beaches closed was up 28 percent over the year before – the second straight record-setting year in the 17 years since the NRDC had been tracking beach water quality.

The report indicated that beaches are becoming increasingly susceptible to contamination from sewage spills, storm water runoff and agricultural pollution.

In New Jersey in 2006, there were 134 ocean and bay beach closures or advisories – a 70 percent increase from the 79 reported in 2005.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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