Lawmakers took several steps to fight the ocean dumping of medical waste before heading back to districts where waves of the infectious debris have marred the summer for East Coast resort towns and vacationers.
A House subcommittee voted Thursday to stiffen federal penalties for illegal dumping as Congress prepared to leave town for the August recess, and other lawmakers drafted separate measures to track hospital debris and make violators financially liable for lost revenue to coastal communities.Environmental Protection Agency officials on Tuesday had told a House panel that they believe the debris does not pose a major health threat.
In Congress, the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime approved legislation that would create a specific federal law against medical waste dumping, carrying penalties up to five years in prison, $250,000 in fines and forfeiture of assets such as ships used in illegal dumping.
Rep. William Hughes, D-N.J., the subcommittee chairman and sponsor of the bill, said current laws do not address medical waste dumping specifically and do not cover dumping in all circumstances.
"Even if they are apprehended, the current penalties amount to little more than a slap on the wrist," said Hughes, who represents New Jersey shore communities. "By making illegal medical waste disposal a federal criminal offense, we will be raising the stakes considerably."
Rep. Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., who represents resort towns on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, introduced legislation similar to Hughes' bill, but also including a liability provision.
Under the Studds measure, state and local governments would be able to recover lost tax revenues from violators. In addition, coastal homeowners could recover for damaged property and fishermen and tourist-related businesses could recover for lost business due to medical waste.
"While the medical risk associated with this debris is fairly low, it is intolerable that garbage finds its way into the ocean and onto our shores," said Studds.