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Water: Oceans, Coasts, Estuaries & Beaches

Ocean Dumping-What's Allowed

Most of the material that is dumped in U.S. oceans today is dredged material (sediments) removed from the bottom of waterbodies to maintain the nation's navigation system for commercial, transportation, national defense, and recreational purposes. Several hundred million cubic yards of sediment are dredged from waterways, ports, and harbors each year for this purpose, and approximately 20 percent of this material is disposed of in the ocean. The remainder of the sediments are disposed of in inland waters, upland areas, or confined disposal areas adjacent to shorelines, or used beneficially. Regulation of dredged material disposal in ocean waters is a shared responsibility of EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The decision to issue a permit (or authorize ocean dumping by the Corps) is made by the Corps using EPA's environmental criteria, and is subject to EPA's concurrence. Dumping that occurs in, or affects, State waters may also be subject to review for consistency with State requirements, such as State water quality standards and enforceable State requirements under the Coastal Zone Management Act.

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Dumping from split hull barge

Other materials that are currently ocean disposed include fish wastes, human remains, and vessels. For these and any other allowable materials (other than dredged material), EPA is responsible for issuing a permit. Some materials, such as high-level radioactive wastes, medical wastes, and radiological, chemical, and biological warfare agents, may not be permitted for ocean dumping under any circumstances.

EPA establishes the environmental criteria for evaluating ocean dumping applications, and designates recommended ocean dumping sites. The ocean dumping criteria consider the environmental impact of the dumping, the need for the dumping, the effect of the dumping on esthetic, recreational, or economic values, and the adverse effects of the dumping on other uses of the ocean.

Evaluation of Dredged Material

Dredged materials, as well as other materials proposed for ocean disposal, must undergo a series of tests and evaluations to determine whether they meet EPA's environmental criteria for ocean dumping. These criteria consider the environmental impact of the dumping, the need for the dumping, the effect of the dumping on esthetic, recreational, or economic values, and the adverse effects of the dumping on other uses of the ocean. No permit is issued unless there is enough information to make a scientifically sound determination that the ocean dumping will not cause significant harmful effects.

clam_dredge

Clamshell dredge

Evaluation and testing of dredged material proposed for ocean dumping is conducted to help protect human health and the marine environment. The sediments dredged from our waterways can be contaminated by chemical and other pollutants. If biologically available, such contaminants can be ingested or absorbed by marine organisms, resulting in toxicity (e.g., death) or accumulation in the organism's tissues (bioaccumulation). The evaluation procedures used are designed to protect against toxicity and bioaccumulation that may adversely impact the marine environment or human health, and to produce information about the potential for these effects, efficiently and reliably.

The testing procedures used to evaluate ocean dumping must be approved by EPA and the Corps. EPA and the Corps jointly published a testing manual in 1991 that provides guidance for evaluating the environmental acceptability of dredged material proposed to be ocean dumped. EPA Regional and Corps District offices work together to develop Regional implementation manuals that provide site-specific refinements to the national guidance, such as identifying contaminants of concern for particular harbors, and recommending specific species of organisms to be used in testing of dredged material.

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