Dump now, save later with sludge bill. It's more cost-effective to pay fines
Stop ocean dumping by the end of 1991. That's the stern message Congress is trying to send with a bill passed earlier this month.Skip to next paragraph
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But few dumpers, environmentalists, or regulators believe that ocean dumping will end on schedule.
The bill will ``not bring an end to ocean dumping,'' says Sally Ann Lentz, an attorney with the Oceanic Society. ``It just raises the price tag.''
President Reagan is expected to sign the bill within a week. It provides a clear economic incentive - fees and stiff fines - to stop the dumping.
Cities and towns in New Jersey and New York, including New York City, use a dump site 106 miles off the New Jersey coast for sludge, which is what is left after sewage has been treated. (Sludge is still discharged into ocean waters in Boston and Los Angeles. But because the discharges come from pipelines, rather than barges, they are not governed by the ocean dumping bill.)
The measure leaves regulators and dumpers with a daunting task for the short term. They must quickly find land-based alternatives to ocean dumping that are cheaper than paying the fines mandated by the legislation.
The job is complicated by several factors:
Deadlines. The bill gives sewer authorities just nine months to come up with plans for making the transition to land-disposal and to get those plans approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Environmentalists, while not recommending that the deadline be extended, are concerned that dumpers and the EPA may not develop the most environmentally sound plans given the short time-frame. If dumping continues after Dec. 31, 1991, a schedule of fines kicks in.
Siting. Land-based disposal facilities - incinerators, landfills or composting plants - will likely face considerable citizen scrutiny. What regulators and environmentalists call the NIMBY complex - ``not in my back yard'' - could delay the planning and construction of such facilities.
Cost. Constructing land-based disposal sites and paying haulers to transport sludge to the sites could raise sewer rates sharply in cities and towns that now depend on ocean dumping to get rid of their sludge. Alternatively, municipalities might issue bonds to cover the cost.
The penalties for failing to comply with the ban are steep. Given the extra time that New York City says it will need to convert to land-disposal and the schedule of fees and penalties mandated by the bill, the city could pay upwards of $1 billion a year in fines by 1995. Other cities in New York and New Jersey would face similarly steep penalties.
The burden of penalties will be eased considerably in that sewer authorities will be eligible to collect up to 90 percent of the penalties (held in a trust account) to implement land-based disposal. (The remaining 10 percent will go to cover costs incurred by the EPA and the US Coast Guard.)
Still, sewer authorities complain that the rebate system introduces a level of bureaucracy that will delay and complicate their conversion to land-based sludge disposal. Regulators and environmentalists agree that the rebate system makes a seemingly intractable problem easier to deal with.
Even with the money necessary to end ocean dumping assured by the trust fund, environmentalists are worried that the water-to-land disposal conversion will be accomplished responsibly.
In the short term, observers see several scenarios:
Sewer authorities will develop land-based disposal for sludge that is less toxic but will continue to dump more-toxic sludge into the ocean (because paying the dumping fine could be cheaper than finding a land-based disposal alternative for toxic sludge.)