Although modern waste management methods are almost entirely land-based, such as landfills or waste-to-energy plants, dumping waste at sea used to be a very common practice for communities all around the world. It was based on the misguided assumption that ocean waters had an unlimited capacity for waste absorption and dispersal.
It’s only relatively recently that societies have become aware of the significant harm that waste disposal at sea can have on the marine environment. Read on to learn more about the history of ocean dumping, and what federal regulations are helping guard against this practice in the United States today.
What wastes were disposed of in the ocean before 1972?
Many harmful waste materials made their way into ocean waters before the advent of environmental safeguards. Although there are no complete records that detail the exact volumes and types of disposed materials, data from a number of individual reports paints a shocking picture of the magnitude of historic ocean dumping practices.
For example, in 1970, the Council on Environmental Quality issued a report to the US President stating that, in 1968, US ocean waters served as disposal sites for 38 million tons of dredged material (of which one-third was polluted); 4.5 million tons of industrial waste; 4.5 million tons of sewage sludge containing significant quantities of heavy metals and other contaminants; and 500,000 tons of construction and demolition debris.
Furthermore, records from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that between 1946 and 1970, more than 55,000 containers of radioactive waste were disposed of at three Pacific Ocean sites. Likewise, between 1951 and 1962, three ocean sites off the East Coast served as the dumping ground for nearly 34,000 containers of radioactive waste.
What impact did historical ocean dumping have on the marine environment?
Not surprisingly, decades of uncontrolled dumping led to high levels of contamination in some areas of the ocean. The harmful pollutants found in high concentration in these areas included heavy metals, chlorinated petrochemicals, and inorganic nutrients. In addition, uncontrolled dumping severely depleted oxygen levels in some ocean waters, such as the New York Bight off the mouth of the Hudson River, where sewage sludge and other materials from New York City were dumped for many years. Lower oxygen concentrations make ocean waters hostile to many marine animals and plants.
What steps have been taken to reduce ocean dumping and its harmful impacts?
The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) was enacted by Congress in October 1972 as the first step to stopping the damaging practice of ocean dumping. Also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, MPRSA declares that it is US policy to regulate all marine dumping activities that would have a negative impact on human health, welfare, and amenities, or on the ecological systems or economic potential of the marine environment.
Specifically, MPRSA implements the requirements of the so-called London Convention (officially the “Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter of 1972”), one of the first international agreements for protecting the marine environment from damage as a result of human activities.
Under the MPRSA, the EPA sets and updates criteria to be used in the review and evaluation of ocean dumping permits. With the concurrence of the EPA, the US Army Corps of Engineers has the responsibility of issuing ocean dumping permits for dredged material. For all other materials, permits are issued directly by the EPA. The EPA also designates and manages individual ocean disposal sites for different dumped materials.
To promote greater awareness of the importance of marine protection and the need for proper ocean disposal, the EPA operates the Ocean Dumping Management Program, which works with international, federal, state, and local partners and interagency groups on safe ocean dumping practices, dredged material management, pollution prevention strategies, and marine protection activities.
The MPRSA has seen a number of amendments over the years as waste management and disposal practices have continued to evolve. 1988 brought in the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, 1992 saw the passage of the Water Resources Development Act, and a further amendment was introduced in 1998.
What materials can and cannot be dumped into the ocean today?
Today, thanks to the MPRSA and its amendments, many dangerous materials that were historically disposed of at sea are now prohibited from being dumped in the ocean. These include high-level radioactive wastes; sewage sludge; industrial waste; medical waste; materials containing greater than trace amounts of compounds like mercury or cadmium; and any inert materials, whether synthetic or natural, that may float or remain suspended in the ocean and consequently interfere with fishing, navigation, or other marine activities.
As to what can be disposed of in the ocean today, the vast majority of the material dumped in the ocean at present is uncontaminated sediment, or dredged material, that has been removed from US waterways to allow for a functional network of coastal ports and harbors. Other materials that can be disposed of at sea include fish waste, vessels, and human-made ice piers located in Antarctica.