A recent report by an environmental organization claiming dozens of beaches in Maine are unsafe is based on accurate, but misinterpreted data, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

“We don’t dispute what the report says, because they’re using our data to make those assessments, but what’s a little bit different is that those authors are using a value to assess those beaches that is different from what we use,” said Meagan Sims, DEP’s Healthy Beaches Program Coordinator. 

Environment Maine, the local branch of national environmental activist nonprofit Environment America, released a report on July 5 based on DEP data from 2022. 
The report is part of an annual national effort by the nonprofit.  
The organization alleged as many as 36 beaches along the entire coast of Maine were “Beaches with potentially unsafe levels of fecal indicator bacteria on at least one testing day in 2022.” 

Sims said DEP has determined as of this week that only three beaches are showing problems. At issue is a value called the Most Probable Number, or MPN. Sims said the number comes from the amount of bacteria found in samples taken in a certain area. DEP tracks the MPN at various testing locations all along the coast. 

Typically, Sims said, DEP does not consider any MPN value below 104 to be unsafe. That’s a standard set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, she said. 

But Environment Maine is basing its assessment on the idea that any MPN value above 60 is dangerous, Sims said, hence the large number of beaches the organization declared to be unsafe. 

“They’re using a value that’s much lower than what’s used in the state of Maine and also in several other states,” Sims said. “It inflates the statistics a bit.” 

Sims acknowledged that some beaches in Maine have elevated levels of bacteria. She noted that the state tracks this information based on up-to-date samples on its website. This week, she said, there are parts of three beaches in the state — Goochs Beach and Mother’s Beach, both in Kennebunk, and Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach — that are under contamination advisory from the DEP. 

Even the status of those beaches, Sims said, is likely to change. 

“It’s a dynamic environment,” she said. “Water quality, even when it’s elevated, can return to safe levels fairly quickly.”