Ocean Dumping Act: A Summary of the Law

Ocean Dumping Act: A Summary of the Law
Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act has two basic aims: to
regulate intentional ocean disposal of materials, and to authorize related research.
Permit and enforcement provisions of the law are often referred to as the Ocean
Dumping Act. The basic provisions of the act have remained virtually unchanged since
1972, when it was enacted to establish a comprehensive waste management system to
regulate disposal or dumping of all materials into marine waters that are within U.S.
jurisdiction, although a number of new authorities have been added. This report
presents a summary of the law.
The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (MPRSA, P.L.
92-532) has two basic aims: to regulate intentional ocean disposal of materials, and to
authorize related research. Title I of the act, which is often referred to as the Ocean
Dumping Act, contains permit and enforcement provisions for ocean dumping. Research
provisions are contained in Title II; Title IV authorizes a regional marine research
program; and Title V addresses coastal water quality monitoring. The third title of the
MPRSA, which authorizes the establishment of marine sanctuaries, is not addressed here.
This report presents a summary of the law, describing the essence of the statute. It
is an excerpt from a larger document, CRS Report RL30798, Environmental Protection
Laws: Summaries of Major Statutes Administered by the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA). Many details and secondary provisions are omitted here, and even some
major components are only briefly mentioned. Further, this report describes the statute
without discussing its implementation. Table 1 shows the original enactment and
subsequent amendments. Table 2, at the end of this report, cites the major U.S. Code
sections of the codified statute.

Table 1. 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)
YearActPublic Law Number
1972Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries ActP.L. 92-532
1974London Dumping Convention ImplementationP.L. 93-254
1977Authorization of appropriationsP.L. 95-153
1980Authorization of appropriationsP.L. 96-381
1980Authorization of appropriationsP.L. 96-572
1982Surface Transportation Assistance ActP.L. 97-424
1986Budget ReconciliationP.L. 99-272, §§6061-6065

1986Water Resources Development ActP.L. 99-662, §§211, 728,

1987Water Quality Act of 1987P.L. 100-4, §508
1988Ocean dumping research amendmentsP.L. 100-627, title I
1988Ocean Dumping Ban ActP.L. 100-688, title I
1988U.S. Public Vessel Medical Waste Anti-DumpingP.L. 100-688, title III
Act of 1988
1990Regional marine research centersP.L. 101-593, title III
1992National Coastal Monitoring ActP.L. 102-567, title V
1992Water Resources Development ActP.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 (in the 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 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. Certain materials, such as high-level radioactive waste, chemical and
biological warfare agents, medical waste, sewage sludge, and industrial waste, may not
be dumped in the ocean. 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. The law regulates ocean dumping within the area extending 12 nautical
miles seaward from the U.S. baseline and regulates transport of material by U.S.-flagged
vessels for dumping into ocean waters. EPA designates sites for ocean dumping and
specifies in each permit where the material is to be disposed. EPA prepares an annual
report of ocean dumping permits for material other than dredged material.1
In 1977, Congress amended the act to require that dumping of municipal sewage
sludge or industrial wastes that unreasonably degrade the environment cease by December
1981. (However, that deadline was not achieved, and amendments passed in 1988
extended the deadline to December 1991.) In 1986, Congress directed that ocean disposal
of all wastes cease at the traditional 12-mile site off the New York/New Jersey coast (that
is, it barred issuance of permits at the 12-mile site) and directed that disposal 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 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 waterbodies in order to maintain navigation channels and
berthing areas. Other materials that are dumped include vessels, fish wastes, and human
remains. 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.2 Before

1 See [http://www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/regulatory/dumpdredged/annualreport.html].
2 See [http://el.erdc.usace.army.mil/odd/default.htm].

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 harm.
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 CFR 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 Ocean Dumping Act also requires the 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 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.
Table 2. Major U.S. Code Sections of the Marine Protection,
Research, and Sanctuaries Act
(codified as 33 U.S.C. 1401-1445, 16 U.S.C. 1431-1447f, 33 U.S.C. 2801-2805)
Section TitleOcean Dumping Act

33 U.S.C.

1401Congressional findings, declaration of policySec. 2
1401DefinitionsSec. 3
Title I - Permit Program
1411Prohibited actsSec. 101
1412Environmental Protection Agency permitsSec. 102
1413Corps of Engineers permitsSec. 103
1414Permit conditionsSec. 104

1414aSpecial provisions regarding certain dumpingSec. 104A


Section TitleOcean Dumping Act
1414bOcean dumping of sewage sludge and industrialSec. 104B
1414cProhibition on disposal of sewage sludge atSec. 104C
landfills on Staten Island
1415PenaltiesSec. 105
1416Relationship to other lawsSec. 106
1417EnforcementSec. 107
1418RegulationsSec. 108
1419International cooperationSec. 109
1420Authorization of appropriationsSec. 111
1421Annual report to CongressSec. 112
Title II -Research Programs
1441Monitoring and research programsSec. 201
1442Research on long-term effectsSec. 202
1443Research program - ocean dumping and otherSec. 203
1444Annual reportsSec. 204
1445Authorization of appropriationsSec. 205
Title IIIMarine Sanctuaries
Title IV -Regional Marine Research Programs

16 U.S.C.

1447PurposesSec. 401
1447aDefinitionsSec. 402
1447bRegional marine research boardsSec. 403
1447cRegional research plansSec. 404
1447dResearch grant programSec. 405
1447eReport on research programSec. 406
1447fAuthorization of appropriationsSec. 407
Title V -National Coastal Monitoring System

33 U.S.C.

2801PurposesSec. 501
2802DefinitionsSec. 502
2803Comprehensive coastal water quality monitoringSec. 503
2804Report to CongressSec. 504
2805Authorization of appropriationsSec. 505
Note: This table shows the major code sections. For more detail and to determine when a section was
added, the reader should consult the printed version of the U.S. Code.