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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surfers Make Waves With Sewage Protests

ST. AGNES, England -- Chris Hines was a beach bum until he got sick of -- and sick from -- surfing through panty liners, tampon applicators and reeking brown slicks off Cornwall's coast.


Now he makes waves for the powers that be. The general secretary of Surfers Against Sewage has led wet-suited surfers wearing gas masks and carrying slogan-covered surfboards in commando raids on beaches and boardrooms.


The 5-year-old environmental campaign is one of the most punchy and sophisticated since Greenpeace dinghies began dashing between harpoon ships and whales.


The surfers brought the beach to the Houses of Parliament -- sheets of sun-dried toilet paper, sanitary and medical waste. They gave evidence when the House of Lords reviewed clean water standards in 1994.


They went to the High Court in London to sue for illnesses they blame on dirty water dumped into the sea from sewage treatment plants.


They campaigned in Brussels to convince the European Union to tighten its standards for sewage treatment.


Last year, they won the Royal Yachting Association's environmental award and a commendation from the British Environmental Media Awards.


"It is a very effective, very intelligent group,'' said David Kay, a University of Leeds professor of environmental science and government advisor on environmental policy. "Surfers Against Sewage has the ability to span speaking at a scientific level and at a grassroots level.''


The utility Welsh Water credits the group with helping to persuade it to treat effluent with ultraviolet light to kill viruses and bacteria.


The organization has broadened to include swimmers, beachcombers and families who use the country's beaches. Volunteers and staff with an annual budget of about ?330,000 pounds ($510,000), work in a converted warehouse in St. Agnes, 420 kilometers southwest of London, and near one of the country's hottest surfing spots.


Wearing a wet suit and a trademark gas mask, Hines gestured at an oily sheen curling from South West Water's sewage outflow pipe less than 200 meters from St. Agnes beach out into the ocean.


The waste receives "preliminary treatment,'' which means raw sewage is allowed to settle into sludge, which is then removed before the effluent is discharged.


"It gets mashed up and that just makes it harder to see and easier to swallow,'' said Hines, 33. "They're swimming in a soup of their own and other people's excrement.''


Britain pours more than 300 million gallons of sewage into the sea every day, more than half of it either raw or treated in a rudimentary way.


Britain's beaches are now visibly cleaner than in 1991 when pollution caused the European Commission to take legal action against Britain in the European Court of Justice.


Nearly 89 of Britain's 464 beaches designated for bathing met European Union standards for levels of coliform bacteria this year, according to the Department of Environment. That's a 9 percent improvement from 1993.


Hines said, however, the statistics are misleading.


Britain only tests for two of 19 health standards set by the European Union, the minimum legal requirement.


Under the EU's urban waste-water treatment directive, sewage discharged into the sea should receive treatment that uses microorganisms to break down the wastes. This is much more expensive than pumping raw effluent several hundred meters out to sea as many utilities do.


Scientists are convinced that bacteria and viruses that survive are responsible for illnesses ranging from upset stomachs and sore throats to hepatitis. The problem is particularly bad for surfers because being wiped out by a wave causes water to be rammed into the nostrils, ears, mouth and stomach.