Amid E. Coli Concerns, Efforts To Patrol Harrisburg Beach Remain Murky

Aug 23, 2019

After hearing reports on television of dangerous E. coli levels in the Susquehanna River, John Mower decided to head over to City Island. 

The 59-year-old from Wormleysburg said he's been sick for the last two days after taking his pontoon boat on the river and wading in it with his granddaughter and fiancee.

"Cold chills, fevers, diarrhea, throwing up, and I just ain't been feeling good, and me and my fiancee just couldn't figure out why," he said. 

He had seen a TV report Wednesday about high levels of E. coli bacteria in the river, and  was surprised to hear that swimming was prohibited. He came over to see if there were any signs posted. "You know, because they said that there was no swimming allowed right now. But there's not even a sign up here."

There is one sign, though Mower and others could hardly be faulted for not seeing it. The sign is posted on a tree, facing away from the beach, near a sidewalk between a food stand and a closed bathhouse. 

It doesn't mention swimming, or pollution, but its message is clear to anyone who sees it.

Special assistant to the mayor Katie Hicks said beach access is prohibited because there's no lifeguard on duty-- not because of concerns over water quality. Hicks said a city parks and recreation officer would be responsible for enforcing the rules posted on the sign. She didn't know how frequently the beach is patrolled. 

City spokesman Momin Bhatti said he was looking into whether other similar signs are posted on City Island. Bhatti did not respond to further requests. Officials from the city parks and recreation department were not available for comment. Mayor Papenfuse declined to comment. 

State health department spokesman Nate Wardle said the beach is no longer under the oversight of state safety inspectors. 

"The City of Harrisburg decided to close it four-to-five years ago," Wardle said. "For that reason, it is no longer inspected."

On Thursday, like many summer days, plenty of people were on the beach, the day Environmental Integrity Project made public its findings that E. coli bacteria levels along the waterfront were "almost three times higher than would be safe for swimming or water-contact recreation."

A couple sat on a picnic table near the river, listening to music. A woman in a swimsuit lay sunbathing, a couple feet from the water. A woman and a child walked along the water's edge, their dogs playing in the water. 

Denise Shalan of Camp Hill was walking the beach with her grandchildren, who are 6 and 7 years old. She said it was "a shame" to hear about the raw sewage problem, and a surprise to hear the beach is off-limits. 

"I know some people do get in the water here," she said. "We don't."

The environmental report addresses the city's nearly century-old combined stormwater outflow system, which routes raw sewage into the river during heavy rains. 

If the city isn't enforcing the ban on using the beach, it could lead to people getting sick, said Tom Pelton, spokesman at Environmental Integrity Project.

"Kids, in fact, play in that water all the time," Pelton said. "I've seen it myself." 

He said the laboratory they use can only calculate readings to a certain point, and some readings were so high that the lab "just said 'greater than' 10 times the health standard."

On the beach, that information was troubling to Shalan, who led her grandchildren away from the water. 

"This is a beautiful place to live, but the fact that the water's so dangerous, really is a shame."