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Water: Oceans, Coasts, Estuaries & Beaches

30 Years of Progress (1972 - 2002)

In the past, little attention was given to the environmental effects of waste disposal, and even less to reuse, recycling, or other beneficial uses of such materials. The emphasis was on finding convenient disposal places for waste. Because of their immense size and assumed unlimited mixing capacity, coastal and ocean waters became a receptacle for many transportable wastes.

Evidence now demonstrates that the marine environment became increasingly polluted in a number of geographic areas, with high concentrations of heavy metals, inorganic nutrients, chlorinated petrochemicals, and bacteria. In other areas of the sea, the uncontrolled dumping of wastes caused oxygen levels to become severely depressed.


EPA's Ocean Survey Vessel Peter W Anderson.

The passage of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) in 1972 marked a major milestone in the protection of the marine environment. The 1972 MPRSA banned ocean disposal of radiological, chemical, and biological warfare agents, high-level radioactive waste, and medical waste, and required a permit for the ocean dumping of any other materials. In 1983, the law was amended to make any ocean dumping of low-level radioactive waste require specific approval by Congress. The ocean dumping of sewage sludge and of industrial wastes, such as wastes from plastics and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants and from petrochemical refineries, was prohibited by Congressional amendment in 1988. Today, the vast majority of the material ocean dumped from the United States is dredged material (sediments removed from the bottom of waterbodies to maintain the nation's navigation system). Other, limited disposal consists primarily of fish wastes, vessels, and human remains.

Under the MPRSA, EPA establishes criteria for reviewing and evaluating ocean dumping permit applications that consider the effect of, and need for, the dumping. EPA also establishes criteria for designating sites for ocean disposal of any material. Designated sites must have management and monitoring plans.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for the disposal of dredged material, subject to EPA concurrence. EPA is the permitting authority for all other materials proposed for ocean dumping. A permit may only be issued where it is determined that the dumping would not unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, or amenities, or the marine environment, ecological systems, or economic potentialities, and that there is a need for the ocean dumping. Furthermore, notice and opportunity for public comment is required before a permit can be issued.

Today, the United States is at the forefront of protecting coastal and ocean waters from adverse impacts due to ocean dumping. The ocean is no longer considered an appropriate disposal location for most wastes. Those few materials that are ocean dumped are carefully evaluated to ensure that they will not pose a danger to human health or the environment and that there are no better alternatives for their reuse or disposal. While many challenges remain to protecting and managing our coastal and ocean resources, including historic contamination and continuing degradation from land-based sources, we can be proud of the great strides we've made under the MPRSA.

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