EPA History: Administering the Ocean Dumping Act

[EPA Journal - July/August 1975]

In the more than two years since the Ocean Dumping Act became effective, all sea disposal of wastes in the United States has been brought under full regulatory control by EPA and many dumpers have been required to stop dumping immediately or to prepare for phasing out these activities.

The Act, formally known as the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, gives EPA the responsibility for regulating the dumping of all materials except dredged material.

While the Corps of Engineers has the responsibility for regulating the ocean dumping of dredgings it must do so using criteria promulgated by EPA in consultation with the Corps.

The Act provides for control of both the transportation of material to be dumped and the dumping itself. Banned entirely are the ocean disposal of radiological, chemical and biological warfare agents and high-level radioactive wastes.

James L. Agee, Assistant Administrator for Water and Hazardous Materials, told the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries earlier this year that between 1973 and 1974 there had been a total increase in ocean dumping of about 2.1 million tons from 1973 to 1974.

He explained that while there had been an overall decrease in dumping of industrial wastes during this period, the net increase was caused by a rise in the dumping of sewage sludge and construction and demolition debris.

The volume of industrial wastes being discharged at sea is on the decline and EPA has denied 70 permit applications, mostly for chemical dumping, since the Ocean Dumping Act became effective.

Eleven ocean dumping sites in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are now used by approximately 100 permit holders for municipal and industrial wastes. There is no dumping in the Pacific, although municipal sewage sludge is discharged to the ocean through outfall lines. The outfall discharges of sludge on the West coast and elsewhere are controlled under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Mr. Agee told the House committee that "...we have seen a major problem emerge which may have far-reaching effects not only on the ocean dumping permit program, but also on our entire environmental protection effort."

The problem, Mr. Agee said, is how to dispose of sewage sludge. As more and more cities upgrade their sewage treatment facilities from no treatment to primary, secondary or advanced waste treatment processes, more and more sewage sludge is generated.

The greater degrees of treatment produce greater quantities of sludge and the sludge from more advanced waste treatment processes tends to contain large quantities of trace metals and persistent organic compounds, which may have adverse environmental consequences whether they are incinerated, put on the land or dumped in the ocean.

All present dumping of municipal sewage sludge originates from the highly congested New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. The total volume of the sludges from these two metropolitan areas is almost equal to the volume of all other materials discharged under the ocean dumping program.

Both the New York and Philadelphia areas are dumping under interim permits which stipulate that they must seek some way of reducing concentrations of harmful pollutants and must find alternate methods of disposal.

In discussing the general question of sludge dumping, Mr. Agee has said that "we feel that the ocean disposal of sewage sludge, whether by dumping or by outfall, can be permitted only on an interim basis until it is conclusively demonstrated that ocean disposal of sewage sludge is the most acceptable environmental alternative available for ultimate disposal within the limitations of available technology."