Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Humanity's castoffs: How much can the oceans take?

The New York Bight is a quadrangle of water bordered on one side by Long Island and on another by New Jersey. It stretches seaward to the edge of the continental shelf, some 80 to 100 nautical miles offshore. It is one of the most trampled areas of ocean in the world.

It absorbs the wastes of 20 million people. More than 7,000 ships a year pass through the bight on their way to the docks of New York. Commercial fishermen haul $90 million worth of seafood from it annually, while its beaches are the front yard of the most densely populated area in the United States.

About these ads

If it is possible for men to irreparably pollute the oceans, the New York Bight will be one of the first spots to go.

As such, it is a testing ground, a place where scientists and politicians are struggling to settle an issue that can only become more pressing in the years ahead: What can we safely throw away in the ocean?

In 1675, Gov. Edmond Andros of the colony of New York decreed that no one should dump refuse in the harbor "under penalty of forty shillings." It didn't last. In the 1920s the city began dumping sewage sludge -- solids that settle out of raw sewage -- at a site 12 miles from the mouth of the harbor. By 1973 New York was throwing overboard 150 million cubic feet of sludge a year, along with acid waste, dredging mud, and untold amounts of cellar dirt and other construction debris.

Then, on June 14, 1976, horrified sunbathers along the Long Island coast reported trash washing up on beaches. Styrofoam cups, spark plugs, orange peels , other litter, and thousands of black tar balls washed up and fouled the sand. During the first weeks in July, dead lobsters and mollusks started coming up in fishermen's nets. By October, it was estimated that half the area's surf clam population had died. In November, the federal government declared the New Jersey coast a resource disaster area.

Was it sludge that closed the beaches and did in the fish?

"All of us think there was some human involvement, but not a real significant amount," says Garry Mayer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) New York Marine Ecosystems Analysis program.

The analysis program concluded that the catastrophe had natural causes -- unusual winds and current, as well as a large amount of raw sewage temporarily flowing from the Hudson River. But Congress, spurred by pictures of dirty beaches, passed a law banning the dumping of harmful substances after Dec. 31, 1981.

About these ads

Some cities, such as Milwaukee and Washington, began turning part of their sludge into compost. Smaller communities sometimes use it for landfill. New York is the last big city still dumping sludge.And everyone involved, even US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, say it won't be able to meet the deadline.

"There are tremendous political pressures to continue dumping," one regulatory official says.

The sludge, even after being "digested" by bacteria, contains harmful heavy metals. The EPA estimates that two tons of mercury enter the bight this way every year.

"The '81 ban has really bit," claims Rep. William Hughes (D) of New Jersey, who wrote the bill. "Most communities are out of the ocean, though each one was a battle. [New York] still finds ocean dumping very cheap, compared with land-based alternatives."

New York also has been plagued by cost and time overruns on alternative disposal projects.

"As of now, there are no alternatives to this," says Capt. John grondahl of the North River, one of New York's four sludge tankers. Every day it shuttles out to a dumpsite 4 1/2 miles beyond Ambrose Light and sets its cargo adrift in the sea.

Captain Grondahl punches some innocuous buttons. A faint brown smudge begins to trail after the ship. "This stuff is no harm at all," he says.

The sludge swirls briefly on the surface. Then, dispersed by the waves and currents, it disappears.

The ocean seems big enough to swallow anything. Its total volume is about 360 million cubic miles. When you drop or spill something in it, the foreign substance tends eventually to disappear from view. Over the years, this has given people a false sense of security.

"The primary reason that we can no longer rely on the size of the ocean to absorb our wastes," writes Prof. Ruthann Corwin of the University of California at Los Angeles, "is the recognition through the recent decades of ocean exploration that the ocean is not a single mass of water over a relatively uniform bottom."

Rather, the ocean is a world where currents and tides scour out valleys and sculpt mountains. The water itself comes in layers and streams of varying density that can flow past each other without mixing.

Waste and trash could permanently harm individual parts of this system, marine scientists says. Specifically, they point to problems that fall into four main categories --tion, and so-called nonpoint sources, meaning the general pollution that runs off from the land or is washed out of the air.

Material dumped at sea covers up marine life on the bottom and often carries absorbed pollutants. Sewage sludge, for instance, is considered harmful by the EPA primarily because of high concentrations of cadmium, a toxic metal.

Ninety percent of the material dumped is dredged from harbor bottoms. Recently, scientists have discovered that much of this mud may be soaked with toxic chemicals brought in by rivers and streams. In 1979, when New York wanted to dredge its harbor to accommodate the queen Elizabeth 2, it was found that the muck contained substantial amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) -- poisonous synthetic organics.

With land-based disposal given a bad name by Love Canal, some scientists believe there soon may be pressure to dump more industrial wastes in the ocean -- though such incidents as the Minimata Bay mercury poisonings in Japan show there are dangers with ocean disposal, too.

One partial solution may be incineration at sea. Several European countries have practiced it since the early '70s, and the US has on occasion rented their ships for such projects as the 1977 burning of a surplus herbicide, agent orange.

The most involved attempt to tackle the problem of ocean dumping as a whole has been the London dumping convention of 1972, which prohibits signatory nations from disposing of "potentially harmful" wastes in the ocean.As the New York Bight controversy shows, determining what is "harmful" might be the hardest step of all.

Radioactive waste disposal is a smaller, but also potentially serius, problem. From 1946 through 1970, the US disposed of about 95,000 curies of low-level radioactive waste in the ocean. The United Kingdon, Belgium, Denmark, and several other European countries are still throwing spent fuel in the sea. The main dumpsite, in the North Atlantic, is reviewed by an international convention every five years. The US is pushing for more monitoring of the area, to learn the effects on marine life of 55-gallon drums filled with concrete and nuclear waste, including plutonium.

"Nobody really knows what the impacts are," says Clifton Curtis of the Center for Law and Social Policy. The London convention prohibits dumping of high-level waste. The US Department of Energy is studying the possibility of burying the stuff in the ocean floor, though experts say it's too early to tell if such a disposal method will be a "live option."

Meanwhile, oil spills are the attention getters of marine pollution. Spectacular though they are, they may not be as catastrophic as they look.

They are, however, harmful. The 724,000 tons of oil spilled worldwide in 1979 included the Ixtoc well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst spill in history.

"I was flying over kilometers of coastline, and it was black, absolutely black," says Stjepan Keckes, head of the Regional Seas Action Center of the UN Environment Program. "Our advice was, leave it as it is. The ocean would clean those beaches."

Six months later, Mr. Keckes says, the beaches were clean. He and other experts do not discount the effects of such spills, but they say that less noted forms of oil pollution are more insidious. For example, the US National Academy of Sciences estimates that daily ship procedures, such as cleaning cargo tanks and discharging dirty ballast, account for more than twice as much oil pollution as tanker accidents.

The 1978 International Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention, ratified by the US Senate last year, requires tankers to have separate ballast and cargo tanks. And the draft treaty drawn by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, if it ever becomes law, would set strict enforcement procedures for pollution coming from vessels.

The worst marine pollution problem of all can't be pinned down, however. It comes from everywhere -- from fields, rivers, even the sky. Storm water, washing through city streets, picks up oil, grease, and chemicals, then drains out to sea. Agriculture rips up topsoil, which erodes into rivers and steams, loaded with fertilizer that adds tons of nitrogen and phosphorus to the oceans. Air pollution, washed out by rain, falls into the Atlantic and Pacific. The General Accounting Office of the US Congress estimates that such "nonpoint" sources account for more than half of the world's marine pollution.

"Clearly, there's a lot of stuff that gets into the ocean you can't control," says Dr. John Knauss, provost for marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island. And when it gets there, experts often don't know what it does. Virtually all of them say the first priority in the war against marine pollution must be research.

"Much of the research data we need to make decisions is not there," says William Beller, chief of the EPA's Ocean Programs Branch. "For example, we do not now know the long-term effects of drilling fluids on the particular marine biota that exists in the Gulf of Mexico. What do we do?"

The result, at least in the United States, may have been a tendency to treat marine pollution as though it were an isolated problem, instead of part of a complex chain of events.

A report prepared by the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere says that indiscriminate flushing of wastes into the sea is a mistake. Nevertheless, it says, the sea does have a role in waste disposal. In fact, the ocean might be the best place to throw some things away.

The report recommends, for example, that ocean dumping of sludge continue, as well as sea disposal of many industrial wastes.

"If it had come out two years ago, it would have generated a lot more controversy," says Dr. Knauss, chairman of the committee that produced the report. "It's an emotional issue."

Several members of the committee have been hired as advisers by the few communities that still dump their sludge. And some experts feel the oceans may become the world's drain, because we don't worry about what we can't see.

"There's no built-in constituency in the ocean," says Ken Kamlet, assistant director for pollution at the National Wildlife Federation.

On the charts of our knowledge, the ocean remains an immense void. It has been stared at, sailed on, and invoked as symbolism for centuries. Perhaps our pollutants will one day foul it through. Perhaps with proper care, we will do little more than brown it at the edges.

"We don't know much about toxic materials in the marine environment," says Capt. Larry Swanson, director of NOAA's Office of Marine Pollution Assessment. "But I think the biggest problem we have is continued urbanization and the ultimate fact that we have to dispose of these materials. The ocean has to be considered as an alternative, just as the land does."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.