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Water: Oceans, Coasts, Estuaries & Beaches

Ocean Dumping Before the Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)

Aerial view of a barge dumping sludge

Dumping of sewage sludge

While no complete records exist of volumes and types of materials ocean dumped in the United States prior to the 1972 passage of the Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), various reports give some indication of the magnitude of ocean dumping and its effects. For example, a 1970 Report to the President from the Council on Environmental Quality identified the ocean disposal, in 1968, of 38 million tons of dredged material (which, according to the report, was 34 percent polluted), 4.5 million tons of industrial wastes, 4.5 million tons of sewage sludge (which was significantly contaminated with heavy metals), and 0.5 million tons of construction and demolition debris.

In the sewage sludge dump site in the New York Bight (the area in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of New York City where sludge and other materials from the city were ocean dumped), the oxygen concentration (determined as percent saturation) in near bottom waters declined from 61 percent in 1949 to 29 percent, measured at the limits of the dump area, and 10 percent, measured in the center of the site, in 1969. These decreases indicated that dumping could result in rapid and substantial degradation of marine water quality and ecosystems.

A garbage barge being guided by a tug boat.

Garbage barge

In 1968, the National Academy of Sciences estimated the annual release to the marine environment, from both dumping and disposal (through a pipe), of 100 million tons of petroleum products, two to four million tons of acid chemical wastes from pulp mills, more than one million tons of heavy metals in industrial wastes, and more than 100,000 tons of organic chemical wastes.

EPA records indicate that between 1946 and 1970, more than 55,000 containers of radioactive wastes were ocean dumped at three ocean dump sites in the Pacific Ocean. In addition, almost 34,000 containers of radioactive wastes were ocean dumped at three dump sites off the East Coast of the United States from 1951 to 1962. No permits for low-level radioactive waste have been issued since the passage of the MPRSA in 1972.

The dumping of sewage sludge, industrial wastes, and high-level radioactive wastes is now prohibited by the MPRSA. Other ocean dumping, such as wood burning and the dumping of low-level radioactive wastes and construction and demolition debris, has stopped as a matter of environmentally sound practice.

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