By Jay Cook |
HIGHLANDS – For several weeks this hot summer, two local borough beaches on Sandy Hook Bay have been closed due to high levels of pollution by raw sewage in the water.
But borough officials are feeling confident they have cut off the source of the spill.
A sewer inspection company conducted an inspection via cameras of the sewer lines in town on June 30, finding two breaks in piping at the Waterwitch and South Linden avenues intersection. Borough administrator Brian Geoghegan said the raw sewage had made its way to public beaches by “seeping out and finding its way into our storm sewer drains.”
Borough Council President Carolyn Broullon said identifying the source was a priority for the shore town and its beachgoers. “Everybody’s concerned for the health of them and their families,” said Broullon. “As soon as we knew about this issue, we jumped on it.”
High bacterial counts began showing up in late May and early at Miller Beach and at Highlands Recreation Center when results came back above the state-mandated threshold. Highlands officials shut the beaches down on June 22.
Following the discovery of the pipe leak the following week, emergency declaration paper work was filed on July 3. Construction to fix the breaks was delayed by the July 4th holiday but was completed on July 6, when Broullon said crews worked throughout the day to make the repairs.
The cost of the repairs is not yet known.
Water testing is conducted each Monday by county health officials and results are reported to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program on NJBeaches.org.
The threshold between safe and unsafe water is 104 colony forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters of sample. Any number below that level is safe to swim in, but a reading above that means a beach is put on advisory and tested on subsequent days until it reads clean again.
At the Highlands Recreation Center beach, four of 11 tests showed elevated readings so far this summer. The highest was on June 5, when the test came back reporting 920 cfu/100 ml.
Down a few blocks at Miller Beach, the most polluted sample was recorded on May 31, coming in at 310 cfu/100 ml. Five of 12 samples at Miller Beach to date were recorded above the threshold.
“The numbers we were seeing for both the Miller and Rec beaches did stand out to us,” said Dan Kennedy, NJDEP assistant commissioner for water resource management.
The Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program supervises testing of water samples at over 200 ocean and bay stations throughout the state which are taken each Monday by respective county health officials.
The state is on the lookout for enterococcus, a bacterium found in human waste, which can be harmful to humans. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, respirator y issues and flu-like symptoms are all possible ailments associated with swimming in polluted water, per NJDEP.
County health officials tested the two Highlands beaches on schedule bright and early on Monday, July 10, and the results provided a glimmer of hope for anxious swimmers.
The Recreation Center beach tested at 50 cfu/100 ml, and Miller Beach was marked at 40 cfu/100ml, well below previous readings.
“The monitoring program did its job and it has identified issues actively,” Kennedy said.
Both the borough and the state noted that one normal reading doesn’t wipe the slate clean. Broullon said Highlands is looking for three consecutive clean reads before they would reconsider opening the beaches. According to the borough website, the mayor and council have requested additional sampling on Thursday. If those results, which are expected Friday, remain within acceptable limits, the beaches will reopen Saturday.
The beach closures didn’t stop residents from getting some sun this past weekend. At 1 p.m. on Sunday there were about 40 people at the Recreation Center beach.
“I’m disappointed,” said Peri Marando, a Highlands resident of over 20 years, from beneath her beach umbrella. “I hope they can clean up this problem as soon as possible, but I understand it’s not that easy to fix.”
Despite a “Water Closed” sign straddled by a red flag and another “No Swimming” notice tied to a vacant lifeguard stand, two people were in the water – a young girl right at the foot of the shore and an older woman with her lounge chair cranked back, lounging as waves washed past her.
Broullon is optimistic the borough can put this issue behind them.
“We hope this is all fixed and that we can get our beaches back open,” she said.
This article was first published in the July 13-20, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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