The world's largest industrial nations agreed to a global ban on dumping industrial waste at sea and then set the stage Friday for restricting the far greater volume of marine pollution discharged on land.
"This is very promising. We see the meeting as a big step forward," said Filip Facius, head of the Danish delegation, which co-sponsored the resolution to ban ocean dumping.The measure, which calls for phasing out industrial waste dumping at sea by 1995, was adopted late Thursday by consensus among the 43 nations represented at the five-day meeting of signatories to the London Dumping Convention.
It is legally binding on all 64 nations that have signed the 20-year-old treaty, including the United States, Britain, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, Japan and most other industrialized nations.
The United States, which in 1988 passed a law halting ocean dumping of industrial waste, had originally opposed the international ban, saying more study was needed.
The resolution was sponsored by Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Spain and Brazil.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a historic step in cleaning up the sea," said Remi Parmentier of the environmental group Greenpeace.
Under the measure, a survey will be conducted to identify areas suffering the worst effects of waste dumping. Member countries will be expected to prosecute their own flagships found violating the ban.
The resolution calls for dumping to be stopped without increasing pollution in other parts of the environment.
The measure urges nations to encourage and promote cleaner industrial processes, recycling, the treatment of waste on land and more research and development on alternative and environmentally sound means of waste disposal.
Delegates also recommended the creation of a global mechanism for controlling land-based pollution of the sea.
About 80 percent of all ocean pollution is generated on land, with 10 percent coming from industrial waste disposed of by ships at sea and the rest thrown or discharged from vessels in routine operations.
Officials and environmentalists at the meeting said Friday they hoped the global control of such land-based waste would be dealt with at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil.
Delegates also agreed that the dumping convention should be applied to the burial of radioactive waste under the sea floor. The resolution, though not binding, was a setback for plans for seabed disposal of high-level nuclear waste.
The United States, Britain, France and Soviet Union - all with active nuclear programs - voted against the resolution but indicated they would voluntarily comply. Japan, Belgium, Switzerland and Greece abstained from voting.
The nuclear energy agency of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been funding research on seabed disposal of nuclear waste and had identified three burial sites. France and Japan also have research programs.
One plan was to shoot torpedo-shaped canisters from the surface into the sea floor.
"This vote sends a strong message to the world that the sea disposal of radioactive waste is not acceptable," Parmentier said.
Disposing of the lethal waste is a major headache for governments and the nuclear industry. Local groups often have blocked construction of land-based nuclear dumps.
"We've all got radioactive waste that has to be disposed of, and it either goes to the sea or to the land," said a British delegate, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Wherever you go, someone will be very annoyed. But you can't wish it away, we have to put it somewhere. We have no plans to dump radioactive waste, but we are not prepared to eliminate options that we may later regret," the British delegate said.