A Senate vote to ban dumping sludge in the Atlantic Ocean brings the nation "closer to the day when we'll stop using the ocean as a sewer," a key sponsor of the measure says.
The Senate, spurred by fears about sludge and medical waste that has washed up recently on East Coast beaches, voted 97-0 on Tuesday to bar the practice. A similar bill is awaiting action in the House.The Senate measure bans the dumping of municipal sludge off the coasts of New York and New Jersey after 1991 and orders the closing of a sludge dump site 106 miles off the New Jersey coast, the only site where sludge can be legally dumped.
The site is used by six sewage authorities in New Jersey and three in New York, including the city of New York.
"We need a firm deadline, in the law, to ban the ocean dumping of sewage," said Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., one of the co-sponsors. "Only then will alternatives be put in place. Only then will the dumping stop."
The Senate added an amendment by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., which bans the disposal of all medical waste in oceans or streams. It also approved another amendment, by Lautenberg, providing a five-year prison sentence for anyone caught violating that ban.
"Last week, virtually every Connecticut beach was shut down because of medical waste during one of the hottest spells in the state's history," Dodd told his colleagues.
Congress first ordered an end to the ocean dumping of sludge in 1972. Five years later, Congress directed that the dumping be ended by 1981. But the nine municipalities in New York and New Jersey successfully sued in federal court to ignore that deadline.
In the House, Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the small business subcommittee on regulation and business opportunities, called a hearing on hospital waste in the wake of a recent spate of beach closings.
Beaches in New Jersey and New York have been the hardest hit, but hospital debris also has been reported in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina and on the Lake Erie shore in Ohio.
In a related development, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules requiring hazardous industrial wastes to be rendered harmless before being dumped in landfills.
The congressionally mandated land-disposal regulations are expected to cost industry up to $950 million a year, according to J. Winston Porter, assistant EPA administrator for solid waste and emergency response.
"Today's action will require that nearly a third of all hazardous wastes be de-toxified or restricted in some way when disposed of on land," Porter said Tuesday.
The requirement to neutralize hazardous wastes before putting them in landfills will affect an estimated 861 million gallons of waste each year.
The EPA said the new rules would cover, among other things, some 129 million gallons of waste from electroplating and about 83 million gallons of furnace dust produced by mills that recycle scrap metals.
The rules are effective immediately, except for the petroleum industry, which was given two years to comply with the regulations.