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Coastal waters still filthy, but swimming ban lifted in 4 coastal counties

NASA images show Florence flooding polluting Carolina rivers flowing into ocean

A NASA satellite is tracking flooding in the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence and its images show that rivers and streams near the coast and spilling dark, discolored water into the ocean.
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A NASA satellite is tracking flooding in the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence and its images show that rivers and streams near the coast and spilling dark, discolored water into the ocean.

Some coastal waters have been declared safe for swimming along North Carolina’s shores as bacteria levels subside in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries said Friday that ocean swimming is now safe in Carteret, Pender and Onslow counties. The all-clear signal is based on water testing results from Bogue Banks and Topsail Island.

Saturday, the advisory was lifted for New Hanover County after officials tested ocean swimming sites from Fort Fisher State Park through Wrightsville Beach, according to a news release. That includes Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure Beaches.

A safety alert remains in effect for the southern part of the state, in ocean waters along Hyde and Brunswick counties, which includes Oak Island and Sunset Beach. The safety alert applies to ocean beaches and sound-side waters. People who come in contact with the water should wash their hands and limit water exposure to open cuts and wounds.

The state also warns that shellfish such as oysters and clams, which are bottom feeders and more susceptible to contaminants, can become up to 100 times more contaminated than the water they live and feed in. The shellfishing waters in areas affected by the storm will not be opened for harvesting until the state determines that they are safe.

Swimming in waters under a safety advisory exposes people to risk severe illness, such as bacterial infections, earaches, hepatitis, skin rashes and respiratory issues, the agency said. The waters have elevated levels of E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria and other pathogens.

After heavy rains and flooding, coastal areas are awash in runoff waters teeming with bacteria from overflowed septic systems and waste water treatment plants, as well as industrial chemicals, solvents and animal waste picked up by flood waters and carried out to sea.

At the height of the hurricane, 58 waste water treatment plants were experiencing problems, such as power outages and overflows, and some were discharging raw sewage into creeks and rivers.

“A lot of that runoff is now in the ocean,” said Steve Murphey, director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. “It can take several weeks for the water to clear up, particularly down south, where you have a lot of river water coming out.”

State officials have been unable to test water safety in the southern section of the state because the state’s Wilmington lab has been shut down since the hurricane struck. For that reason, those areas are assumed to be polluted and remain under a precautionary advisory.

The swim advisory for Dare and Currituck counties in the northern part of the state was lifted Monday.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932; @johnmurawski
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