Ocean Dumping Act, United States

April 30, 2012, 10:17 pm
Source: Crs
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Sunset over a calm ocean. Source; Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.)

The Ocean Dumping Act has two basic aims: to regulate intentional ocean disposal of materials, and to authorize related research. Title I of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (MPRSA, P.L. 92-532), which is often referred to just as the Ocean Dumping Act, contains permit and enforcement provisions for ocean dumping. Research provisions are contained in Title II, concerning general and ocean disposal research; Title IV, which established a regional marine research program; and Title V, which addresses coastal water quality monitoring. The third title of the MPRSA, not addressed here, authorizes the establishment of marine sanctuaries.


The Ocean Dumping Act and Amendments
(codified as 33 U.S.C. 1401-1445, 16 U.S.C. 1431-1447f, 33 U.S.C. 2801-2805)
Year Act Public Law Number
1972    Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act P.L. 92-532
1974    London Dumping Convention Implementation P.L. 93-254
1977    Authorization of Appropriations P.L. 95-153
1980    Authorization of Appropriations P.L. 96-381
1980    Authorization of Appropriations P.L. 96-572
1982    Surface Transportation Assistance Act P.L. 97-424
1986    Budget Reconciliation P.L. 99-272, §§6061-6065
1986    Water Resources Development Act P.L. 99-662, §§211, 728, 1172
1987    Water Quality Act of 1987 P.L. 100-4, §508
1988    Ocean dumping research amendments P.L. 100-627, Title I
1988    Ocean Dumping Ban Act P.L. 100-688, Title I
1988    U.S. Public Vessel Medical Waste Anti-Dumping Act of 1988 P.L. 100-688, Title III
1990    Regional marine research centers P.L. 101-593, Title III
1992    National Coastal Monitoring Act P.L. 102-567, Title V
1992    Water Resources Development Act P.L. 102-580, §§504-510


The nature of marine pollution requires that it be regulated internationally, since once a pollutant enters marine waters, it knows no boundary. Thus, a series of regional treaties and conventions pertaining to local marine pollution problems and more comprehensive international conventions providing uniform standards to control worldwide marine pollution has evolved over the last 35 years.

At the same time that key international protocols were being adopted and ratified by large number of countries worldwide (early 1970s), the United States enacted the MPRSA to regulate disposal of wastes in marine waters that are within U.S. jurisdiction. It utilizes a comprehensive and uniform waste management system to regulate disposal or dumping of all materials into ocean waters. Prior to 1972, U.S. marine waters had been used extensively as a convenient alternative to land-based sites for the disposal of various wastes such as sewage sludge, industrial wastes, and pipeline discharges and runoff.

The basic provisions of the act have remained virtually unchanged since 1972, but many new authorities have been added. These newer parts include:

  1. research responsibilities for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA);
  2. specific direction that EPA phase out the disposal of “harmful” sewage sludges and industrial wastes;
  3. a ban on the ocean disposal of sewage sludge and industrial wastes by December 31, 1991;
  4. inclusion of Long Island Sound within the purview of the act; and,
  5. inclusion of medical waste provisions. Authorizations for appropriations to support provisions of the law expired at the end of FY1997 (September 30, 1997). Authorities did not lapse, however, and Congress has continued to appropriate funds to carry out the act.

Four federal agencies have responsibilities under the Ocean Dumping Act: EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Coast Guard. EPA has primary authority for regulating ocean disposal of all substances except dredged spoils, which are under the authority of the Corps of Engineers. NOAA is responsible for long-range research on the effects of human-induced changes to the marine environment, while EPA is authorized to carry out research and demonstration activities related to phasing out sewage sludge and industrial waste dumping. The Coast Guard is charged with maintaining surveillance of ocean dumping.

Regulating Ocean Dumping

Title I of the MPRSA prohibits all ocean dumping, except that allowed by permits, in any ocean waters under U.S. jurisdiction, by any U.S. vessel, or by any vessel sailing from a U.S. port. The act bans any dumping of radiological, chemical, and biological warfare agents and any high-level radioactive waste, and medical wastes. Permits for dumping of other materials, except dredge spoils, can be issued by the EPA after notice and opportunity for public hearings where the Administrator determines that such dumping will not unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, the marine environment, ecological systems, or economic potentialities. EPA designates sites for ocean dumping and specifies in each permit where the material is to be disposed.

In 1977, Congress amended the act to require that dumping of municipal sewage sludge or industrial wastes which unreasonably degrade the environment cease by December 1981. In 1986 amendments, Congress directed that ocean disposal of all wastes cease at the traditional 12-mile site off the New York/New Jersey coast (that is, barred issuance of permits at the 12-mile site) and be moved to a new site 106 miles offshore. In 1988, Congress enacted several laws amending the Ocean Dumping Act, with particular emphasis on phasing out sewage sludge and industrial waste disposal in the ocean, which continued despite earlier legislative efforts.

In 1992, Congress amended the act to permit states to adopt ocean dumping standards more stringent than federal standards and to require that permits conform with long-term management plans for designated marine dumpsites, to ensure that permitted activities are consistent with expected uses of the site.

Virtually all ocean dumping that occurs today is dredged material—sediments removed from the bottom of water bodies in order to maintain navigation channels and berthing areas. The Corps of Engineers issues permits for ocean dumping of dredged material, the bulk of which results from maintenance dredging by the Corps itself or its contractors. According to data compiled by the Corps, each year an average of 70 million cubic yards of dredged sediment material is disposed of in the ocean at designated sites. Before sediments can be permitted to be dumped in the ocean, they are evaluated to ensure that the dumping will not cause significant harmful effects to human health or the marine environment. EPA is responsible for developing criteria to ensure that the ocean disposal of dredge spoils does not cause environmental harm. Permits for ocean disposal of dredged material are to be based on the same criteria utilized by EPA under other provisions of the act, and to the extent possible, EPA-recommended dumping sites are used. Where the only feasible disposition of dredged material would violate the dumping criteria, the Corps can request an EPA waiver. Amendments enacted in 1992 expanded EPA’s role in permitting of dredged material by authorizing EPA to impose permit conditions or even deny a permit, if necessary to prevent environmental problems.

Permits issued under the Ocean Dumping Act specify the type of material to be disposed, the amount to be transported for dumping, the location of the dumpsite, the length of time the permit is valid, and special provisions for surveillance. The EPA Administrator can require a permit applicant to provide information necessary for the review and evaluation of the application.


The act authorizes EPA to assess civil penalties of not more than $50,000 for each violation of a permit or permit requirement, taking into account such factors as gravity of the violation, prior violations, and demonstrations of good faith; however, no penalty can be assessed until after notice and opportunity for a hearing. Criminal penalties (including seizure and forfeiture of vessels) for knowing violations of the act also are authorized. In addition, the act authorizes penalties for ocean dumping of medical wastes (civil penalties up to $125,000 for each violation and criminal penalties up to $250,000, five years in prison, or both). The Coast Guard is directed to conduct surveillance and other appropriate enforcement activities to prevent unlawful transportation of material for dumping, or unlawful dumping. Like many other federal environmental laws, the Ocean Dumping Act allows individuals to bring a citizen suit in U.S. district court against any person, including the United States, for violation of a permit or other prohibition, limitation, or criterion issued under Title I of the act.

In conjunction with the Ocean Dumping Act, the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates all discharges into navigable waters including the territorial seas. Although these two laws overlap in their coverage of dumping from vessels within the territorial seas, any question of conflict is essentially moot because EPA has promulgated a uniform set of standards (40 C.F.R. Parts 220- 229). The Ocean Dumping Act preempts the CWA in coastal waters or open oceans, and the CWA controls in estuaries. States are permitted to regulate ocean dumping in waters within their jurisdiction under certain circumstances.

The act also requires the EPA Administrator, to the extent possible, to apply the standards and criteria binding upon the United States that are stated in the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matters (known as the London Dumping Convention). This Convention, signed by more than 85 countries, includes Annexes that prohibit the dumping of mercury, cadmium and other substances such as DDT and PCBs, solid wastes and persistent plastics, oil, high-level radioactive wastes, and chemical and biological warfare agents; and requires special permits for other heavy metals, cyanides and fluorides, and medium- and low-level radioactive wastes.

Research and Coastal Water Quality Monitoring

Title II of the MPRSA authorizes two types of research: general research on ocean resources, under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and EPA research related to phasing out ocean disposal activities.

NOAA is directed to carry out a comprehensive, long-term research program on the effects not only of ocean dumping, but also of pollution, overfishing, and other human-induced changes on the marine ecosystem. Additionally, NOAA assesses damages from spills of petroleum and petroleum products.

EPA’s research role includes “research, investigations, experiments, training, demonstrations, surveys, and studies” to minimize or end the dumping of sewage sludge and industrial wastes, along with research on alternatives to ocean disposal. Amendments in 1980 required EPA to study technological options for removing heavy metals and certain organic materials from New York City’s sewage sludge.

Title IV of the MPRSA established nine regional marine research boards for the purpose of developing comprehensive marine research plans, considering water quality and ecosystem conditions and research and monitoring priorities and objectives in each region. The plans, after approval by NOAA and EPA, are to guide NOAA in awarding research grant funds under this title of the act.

Title V of the MPRSA established a national coastal water quality monitoring program. It directs EPA and NOAA jointly to implement a long-term program to collect and analyze scientific data on the environmental quality of coastal ecosystems, including ambient water quality, health and quality of living resources, sources of environmental degradation, and data on trends. Results of these activities (including intensive monitoring of key coastal waters) are intended to provide information necessary to design and implement effective programs under the Clean Water Act and Coastal Zone Management Act.

Note: This article was extracted from from the Congressional Research Service Report RL30798, Environmental Laws: Summaries of Major Statutes Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency by David M. Bearden, Claudia Copeland, Linda Luther, James E. McCarthy, Linda-Jo Schierow, and Mary Tiemann (October 8, 2010).

Further reading

  • Moore, Steven J. Troubles in the High Seas: A New Era in the Regulation of U.S. Ocean Dumping. Environmental Law. Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. Vol. 22, No. 3, 1992. pp. 913-951.
  • Richards, Frederick Forrest, III. Ocean Dumping: An International and Domestic Perspective. Journal of Legislation. Vol. 17, No. 2, 1991. pp. 287-307.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Congressional Research Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Congressional Research Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.

Note: The first version of this article was drawn from material prepared for the Congressional Research Service by Claudia Copeland.



(2012). Ocean Dumping Act, United States. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbee8d7896bb431f698afb


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