State orders Oak Bluffs beaches closed, water fails standard

Beach goers Wednesday enjoyed the breeze but not the water as temperatures soared. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) Wednesday morning ordered Oak Bluffs health agent Shirley Fauteux to close three popular public swimming beaches the town health agent reopened Saturday. Ms. Fauteux made the decision when tests met one, but not both of the required state standards for acceptable water quality.

“The state reminded me I needed to follow protocol and regulations,” Ms. Fauteux told The Times in a telephone conversation late Wednesday. Following several conversations with a DPH official Wednesday, Ms. Fauteux decided to close the beaches again.

One week ago on Wednesday, July 13, the town closed Inkwell Beach, Pay Beach, Medeiros Cove near the Sailing Camp on Lagoon Pond, and Eastville Beach near the drawbridge, when testing of water samples on July 11 showed levels of bacteria nearly 24 times the acceptable state standard at all beaches.

On Saturday, after consulting with board of health chairman Patricia Bergeron, Ms. Fauteux reopened all the beaches but Medeiros Cove. She did so on the basis of two water tests that met the single day standard. However, the test results did not meet the required state standard for average water quality over the five most recent tests.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), enterococci bacteria are an indicator organism that may mean water is contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria. Any water sample with a count greater than 104 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water (cfu/100 ml) is called an “exceedance,” which requires that the beach be posted.

According to the DPH website, following the July 11 results, Ms. Fauteux tested water quality on Wednesday, July 13, Friday, July 15, and Monday, July 18. The results from Inkwell Beach and Eastville were well under the state standard. Pay Beach had one result on July 18 slightly over the limit. However, none of the beaches met the standard of average water quality over five successive tests.

One contributing factor in Oak Bluffs was the very high test result on July 11 of 2420 cfu/100 ml, the measurement limit. That number factored into the equation significantly affected the average of the five most recent samples.

In West Tisbury, which experienced a similar high spike at Lambert’s Cove Beach, health agent John Powers tested every day.

Asked why the board did not test everyday, Ms. Fauteux said late Wednesday, “Because I opened the beaches on Saturday, I felt I didn’t need to do that. In retrospect, I should have done that,” she said.

Under pressure

When the town reopened the beaches Saturday, none met the required state standard called “geometric mean trend.” While the single day standard provides a “snapshot” of water quality, the geometric mean measurement is based on the most recent five test results, and computes trends in water quality over time. The state requires that beaches be closed to swimming if the geometric mean, represented on the DPH website as a line on a graph, falls below 35 cfu/100 ml. In the case of Inkwell Beach, the geometric mean was slightly higher than the state’s acceptable standard, though well below the standard for a single test.

“When the bacteria level is within the parameters, and the geometric mean is within four points, that’s not going to make anybody sick,” Ms. Fauteux told The Times Wednesday morning prior to receiving notification from DPH to close the beaches. “My decision to open them was more that the bacteria level was not a public health issue at that point; the numbers were good.”

Asked whether town officials pressured her to open the beaches, Ms. Fauteux said, “Let’s put it this way, they certainly wanted them open.”

In a conversation following the state order, Ms. Bergeron said she did not fully understand the geometric mean standard when she discussed the issue with Ms. Fauteux, but thought it made sense to open the beaches based on the single day standard.

“We did that in good faith,” Ms. Bergeron said. “She called me and said ‘I want to open them,’ I said ‘Shirley I’ll stand behind you.'”

Ms. Bergeron said everyone is eager to open the beaches at the height of the busy summer season, during a stretch of very hot weather, but there was no political pressure to do so. She said the board’s first concern is for public health.

The decision to open the beaches Saturday left conflicting information for beachgoers. The state’s beach water quality website on Saturday listed the status of Inkwell Beach as “posted,” meaning closed, but a notice on the Oak Bluffs website said it was open, and signs on the beach said the water quality was acceptable.

Unhappy public

The closure last Wednesday of four popular Oak Bluffs public beaches due to unhealthy levels of bacteria generated questions and complaints to town officials from visitors and residents. Selectmen and Ms. Fauteux reported numerous complaints to their offices about the notification process and lack of information.

On Wednesday morning July 13, Ms. Fauteux posted signs on the four beaches. She also notified the Martha’s Vineyard Times, and posted information on the town’s website.

However on Wednesday, as well as Thursday and Friday of last week, people were in the water on the town’s popular beaches along Sea View Avenue. Five swimmers questioned by The Times said they did not see the signs, and were completely unaware of the health danger.

Two small signs were posted along the quarter-mile stretch of beach. There are five sets of steps leading to the beach, as well as many pathways.

“We’re required to post at an entrance,” Ms. Fauteux told The Times in a telephone call Monday. “Those are the signs the state gave us.”

Oak Bluffs selectmen at their meeting Tuesday night said they had received numerous complaints and questions from people who were unaware of the closures.

Selectmen also heard from Billy Hancock. Ms. Hancock, who now lives in Florida, was born and raised in Oak Bluffs and maintains a seasonal home on Ocean Park, told selectmen Tuesday night that nobody was aware the beaches were closed.

Ms. Hancock, the wife of former longtime selectman Herbert Hancock of Chilmark who died in April 2001, told selectmen the board of health should have made more of an effort to notify swimmers that the beaches were closed to swimming, either with more signs or yellow police tape.

She said the signs notifying people of the health risks were posted along with existing signs referencing prohibitions against dogs and smoking.

Ms. Hancock said she and her friend, Carolyn Ridout, went for a swim on Wednesday. Ms. Ridout later became ill with several of the symptoms described in health warnings.

Selectmen assured her the town would make a better effort to notify the public if beaches are closed in the future.

“I spoke to Shirley Fauteux, I talked to her about additional signage, because we all got complaints about the signage,” board chairman Kathy Burton said. “She is immediately ordering more signs, and has agreed to post them at every possible entrance. We can’t do anything about the situation, but we can do something about the signage.”