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Ocean Dumping Ban Act (1988)

Ocean Dumping Ban Act (1988)

The Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-688) marked an end to almost a century of sewage sludge and industrial waste dumping into the ocean. The law was enacted amid negative publicity about beach closures from high levels of pathogens and floatable debris washing up along New York and New Jersey beaches and strong public sentiment that ending ocean dumping may improve coastal water quality . The Ban Act prohibits sewage sludge and industrial wastes from being dumped at sea after December 31, 1991. This law is an amendment to the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (Public Law 92-532), which regulates the dumping of wastes into ocean waters. These laws do not cover wastes that are discharged from outfall pipes such as from sewage treatment plants or industrial facilities or that are generated by vessels.

The Ocean Dumping Ban Act was not the first attempt to prohibit dumping of sewage sludge and industrial wastes at sea. An earlier ban was developed by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and later passed by the U.S. Congress (Public Law 95-153) in 1977, amending the 1972 act. This 1977 law prohibits ocean dumping that "may unreasonably degrade the marine environment" by December 31, 1981. Approximately 150 entities dumping sewage sludge and industrial waste sought alternative disposal options. However, New York City, and eight municipalities in New York and New Jersey filed a lawsuit against the EPA objecting to the order to end their ocean dumping practices. A Federal district court granted judgment in their favor, allowing them to continue ocean dumping under a court order. The court held that the EPA must balance, on a case-by-case basis, all relevant statutory criteria with the economics of ocean dumping against land-based alternatives. After 1981, the New York and New Jersey entities were the only dumpers of sewage sludge, and there were only two companies dumping industrial waste at sea.

In anticipation of the 1988 Ocean Dumping Ban Act, one of the two industries stopped its dumping activities in 1987. The remaining industry, which was dumping hydrochloric acid waste, also ceased its activities before the 1988 Ban Act became law. The entities from New Jersey and New York continued to dump a total of approximately eight million wet metric tonnes of sewage sludge (half from New York City) annually into the ocean.

From 1924 to 1987, sludge dumpers used a site approximately 12 miles (19 km) off the coasts of New Jersey and New York. The EPA, working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), determined that ecological impacts such as shellfish bed closures, elevated levels of metals in sediments, and introduction of human pathogens into the marine environment were attributed entirely or in part to sludge dumping at the 12 mile site. As a result the EPA decided to phase out the use of this site by December 31, 1987. The sewage sludge dumpers were required to move their activities farther offshore to the 106-mile (171-km) deep water dumpsite, located at the edge of the continental shelf off southern New Jersey. Industries had used this dumpsite from 1961 to 1987.

The Ocean Dumping Ban Act prohibits all dumping of sewage sludge and industrial waste into the ocean, without exception. The law also prohibits any new dumpers, and required existing dumpers to obtain new permits that included plans to phase-out sewage sludge dumping at sea. The Ban Act also established ocean dumping fees and civil fines for any dumpers that continue their activities after the mandated end date. The fines were included in the law in part because legislators assumed that some sludge dumpers would not be able to meet the December 31, 1991 deadline. The law required fees of $100 per dry ton of sewage sludge or industrial waste in 1989, $150 per dry ton in 1990, and $200 per dry ton in 1991. After the 1991 deadline penalties rose to $600 per ton for any sludge dumped, and increased incrementally in each subsequent year. Those ocean dumpers that continue beyond December 31, 1991 are allowed to use a portion of their penalties for developing and implementing alternative sewage sludge management strategies. While the amount of the penalty increased each year after 1991, the amount that could be devoted to developing land-based disposal alternatives decreased.

As part of the law, the EPA, in cooperation with NOAA, is responsible for implementing an environmental monitoring plan at the 12 mile site, the 106 mile site, and surrounding areas potentially influenced by dumping activities to determine the effects of dumping on living marine resources. The Ban Act also includes provisions not directly associated with dumping of sewage sludge or industrial waste at sea. Massachusetts Bay-MA, Barataria Terrebonne Estuary Complex-LA, Indian River Lagoon-FL, and Peconic Bay-NY were named as priority areas for consideration to the National Estuary Program by EPA. The law also includes a prohibition on the disposal of medical waste at sea by public vessels. Finally, the Ban Act requires vessels transporting solid waste over the New York Harbor to the Staten Island Landfill to use nets to secure the waste to minimize the amount that may spill overboard.

The New Jersey dumpers ceased ocean dumping by March 1991. The two New York counties stopped ocean dumping by December 1991 and New York City, the last entity to dump sewage sludge into the ocean, stopped zn June 1992. Landfilling is currently used as an alternative to ocean dumping and other sewage sludge management strategies are under consideration including incineration (after the sludge is dewatered), composting , land application, and pelletization.

See also Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Waste and Other Matter

[Marci L. Bortman Ph.D. ]



Kitsos, T. R., and J. M. Bondareff. "Congress and Waste Disposal at Sea." Oceanus 33 (Summer 1990): 2328.

Millemann, B. "Wretched Refuse Off Our Shores." Sierra 74 (January-February 1989): 2628.

"Ocean Dumping Ban Advances." Journal of the Water Pollution Control Federation 60 (August 1988): 1320+.

Weis, J. S. "Ocean Dumping Revisited." BioScience 38 (December 1988): 749.

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