USDA discusses outreach work with Sherrod


The oil is staying in the Gulf so far. And the water is fine as the Lowcountry heads to the beaches this weekend, state health inspectors say.

They base that on testing for bacteria at five monitoring stations in Charleston County, among a warren of stations along the state's 23 beaches. Get a look for yourself -- the health status of individual beaches will be posted real-time on a S.C. Health and Environmental Control Department website. Testing begins Saturday and runs through mid-October.

Charleston County beaches normally are tested once every two weeks, if no bad samples come back. More problematic beaches in Horry County normally are tested once a week. "It's a valuable tool. People can see before they go to a beach if there's an advisory," said Adam Myrick, DHEC media relations officer.

"Bacteria" is a neutral term for fecal chloroform, essentially human or animal waste. It can get into open sores and cause infection and causes problems if swallowed. The bacteria tend to crop up after rains create runoff that flows into the water. The agency's testing generally finds good water quality in the Lowcountry and across the coast.

In 2009, only 75 of nearly 2,000 samples came back bad coastwide, less than 4 percent. In Charleston County, there was only one bad sample, on Sullivan's Island in July. The county's beaches tend to test bad only in about one percent of tests. Trouble spots tend to occur in urbanized Horry County, where streets drain directly into the ocean. Signs warn people to avoid drain areas after rains.

Last summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council report rated Sullivan's Island the eighth-worst beach in the state for water quality, based on bad sample numbers that were twice the DHEC numbers obtained for the report. State officials blasted the finding, and an NRDC media relations associate said any discrepancies were caused by "questionable data" given the group by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Beachgoers shrugged off the fuss and slopped on the sunscreen.

"It doesn't even cross my mind," said Lindsay Ables of West Ashley when she heard about the NRDC report.

Thom Berry, DHEC media relations director, said indications are that it will be weeks, if ever, before the Gulf oil spill works its way around the tip of Florida. If tar balls or other spill signs show up in South Carolina, testing would be expanded to deal with it. The DHEC website includes a hyperlink on what to do if a tar ball is found on the beach.

Hint: Don't touch it. Contact authorities.