Contact 5 Investigates: How clean are our beaches?

Almost 30 advisories in five years at Phil Foster

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - They are the sights and sounds that make us famous. South Florida's glorious gems: our waterways and our beaches.

"Divers from all over the country,all over the world will visit this area for diving," said Skip Comagere, the owner of Force E Dive Shop in Riviera Beach.

While the sight of the sea can be breathtaking, every now and then the "No Swimming" warning signs can make you wonder...what's really in the water you're swimming in?

"The fact that I don't know what I'm putting in my mouth, down my nose or sitting in my ears," concerns Gary Gillespie, who lives along the Intracoastal Waterway, not far from Peanut Island.

He used to swim the Intracoastal daily, but not anymore. He says it's a "lack of knowledge, I don't think anyone knows."

He's talking about a troubling trend the Palm Beach County Health Department stumbled on around this time last year.

"It's not stuff you'd want to be swimming in, not generally speaking, no," said Palm Beach County Health Department spokesman Tim O'Connor.

Bacteria samples taken around Phil Foster Park located at the base of the Blue Heron Bridge trended extraordinarily high. A danger for some, according to O'Connor.

"We look for human waste, waste that's polluting part of the beach," O'Connor said. "If you have an open sore for example, this is bacteria and it gives that bacteria an entry point into your system, which then can cause infection. If you swallow, again an entry point (you) might run into gastro intestinal problems."

From February to March of last year samples testing for Fecal Coliform and Enterococcus, two types of bacteria, were so high, advisories remained posted for almost a month.

And O'Connor told the WPTV Contact 5 Investigators that they never found a source for the high readings of bacteria. "(We) never found what it was," he said.

So, the Contact 5 Investigators studied five years' worth of Health Department water samples from about a dozen popular swimming spots. Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach had the worst track record with 28 no swimming advisories during that time period. Du Bois Park in Jupiter had four warnings posted during that same time period. All of the other beaches tested clean.

Working with a local lab, the Contact 5 Investigators did their own samples. Gathering water from some of the same sites the Health Department does testing.

The samples came back clean, for the most part. Just one sample from Phil Foster Park had high bacteria readings. The test showed levels of Fecal Coliform, which is found in human waste, in the moderate to almost high range.

"My concern is not for my divers, but those who use the beach to swim," Comagere said. "A lot of locals go there to swim with their children."

E-Mails About Phil Foster Park Water Quality

Comagere's Force E dive shop is located just east of the Blue Heron Bridge. He calls the bridge his baby. "The Blue Heron Bridge means an enormous amount to our economy. So, anything that ecologically affects this water, I'm terribly interested in."

He's not alone. A flurry of e-mails between Palm Beach County staff, Palm Beach County Commissioners and the Department of Environmental Protection tried to pinpoint the source of last year's contamination.

One e-mail calls "the situation perplexing." The e-mails questioned everything from boat owners dumping waste to bird droppings. The e-mails even question a large sewage line that runs the span of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Lou Aurigemma heads the City of Riviera Beach Water Utilities Department. He's in charge of that pipeline and many others. He says, there's no way sewage is leaking from that pipe because his staff monitors the pressure on all of their lines every day.

The Contact 5 Investigators went underwater with two divers from Force E to see the Riviera Beach sewage pipe themselves. Below is a slideshow of what they found.

So, what was causing the high readings of bacteria last year at Phil Foster Park? No one is sure and it remains a mystery. Yet, recent budget cuts mean the water testing, designed to keep the public safe, isn't checked weekly anymore, but every other week to save money.

With all of the advisories posted at Phil Foster Park, the Contact 5 Investigators asked O'Connor if they should be testing more, not less. He said, it's not up to him, it's up to the county commissioners. "That would be up to the county commissioners to determine," he said.

Want to know how safe your local beaches are? Click the links below to see testing results from the Health Department.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

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