Regulators Propose Relaxing Freshwater Fecal Bacteria Limit in Virginia

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State regulators have proposed increasing the acceptable amount of fecal bacteria in Virginia's streams, rivers and lakes.

The State Water Control Board also proposed keeping the current limit; the board will make a final decision next year after a public-comment period this fall.

E. coli bacteria is found in the waste of humans and other warm-blooded animals. People who swallow water with E. coli can suffer from vomiting and diarrhea.

The current limit is an average of 126 bacteria colonies per 100 milliliters of water. The relaxed limit would allow 206 colonies.

State Department of Environmental Quality staff members, who advise the board, have said it makes sense to relax the bacteria limit because it is almost impossible to meet the standard in many waterways. The relaxed limits would continue to protect the public, DEQ staff members have said.

In Virginia, about 9,000 miles of rivers, or 63 percent of the waters checked, are polluted. Of those, about 7,200 miles are polluted by fecal bacteria, and sometimes other substances.

The DEQ estimates that 720 miles that don't meet the current bacteria limit would comply with the relaxed standard. However, the agency has not compiled a list of those waters.

The James River in Richmond, where thousands of people swim, paddle and play, doesn't meet the current limit and also would flunk the relaxed standard, said DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. Most days, the James is clean enough for swimming, but its bacteria levels spike after rains that wash in waste from geese, upriver cattle and other sources.

DEQ staffers cited advantages of a relaxed limit but made no recommendation to the board. The Virginia Department of Health has taken no position.

It's unclear if relaxing the bacteria limit would cause more swimmers and paddlers to get sick. With the current limit, a computer simulation estimates eight of 1,000 people exposed to the dirty water could get sick. Under the relaxed limit, the number increases to 10 out of 1,000. But experts say those numbers are used primarily to calculate pollution limits and don't truly predict sicknesses.

Theoretically, more people would be at risk under the relaxed limit, said Michele Monti, director of the state health department's division of environmental epidemiology.

"But the fact of the matter is we really don't know if this would result in increased illness," Monti said.

That uncertainty stems largely from the fact that state officials rarely hear reports of people getting sick from river water, perhaps because people attribute the sicknesses to other causes.

Wednesday's board actions were part of a periodic review of water-pollution standards.

The actions would not affect saltwater beaches, which operate under different standards.