AS this is being written, the famous barge load of New York trash and garbage is still wandering about the Gulf of Mexico. It's an apt symbol of the waste disposal that the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) warns is ``threatening the health of US estuaries and coastal waters.'' The fact that nobody wants the waste reflects growing public awareness of the dangers of waste disposal in marine environments and the existence of regulations that allow at least some control over it. But the fact that the barge captain has had such trouble dropping the load reminds us that the disposal problem is far from solved.
The hopeful aspect of this situation lies in the degree of awareness and the regulations that already exist. These are a base on which to build wider public knowledge of the waste problem and a more comprehensive system to control disposal.
As explained in the report - ``Wastes in Marine Environments'' - that the OTA released last week, there's currently a striking difference between inshore waters and the open sea.
The open ocean shows little visible damage. Relatively few wastes have been dumped there so far. Most of this pollution is widely dispersed. The OTA notes, however, that ``whether toxic pollutants in these wastes will cause long-term damage to open ocean resources is not yet clear.'' The presence of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in some open-ocean fish is disquieting.
On the other hand, estuaries - the nursery for much marine life - and coastal waters are in trouble. This is where much of the waste now goes. OTA says, ``many of these waters now contain high levels of organic chemicals, metals, and disease-causing organisms.'' Excess nutrients, which encourage harmful algae growth and other activity that depletes the water's dissolved oxygen, lead to massive fish kills.
The magnitude of the waste disposal is awesome. To cite a few OTA statistics: About 1,300 major industrial and almost 600 municipal facilities shoot their wastewater directly into estuaries and coastal regions through pipelines. Thousands of other facilities discharge into rivers that run into estuaries. Runoff from farms and cities, which enters virtually all estuaries and coastal waters, may be as damaging as the pipeline pollution. Also, dredgers dump about 180 million tons of material a year, mostly into estuaries. About 7 million tons of sewage sludge a year have been going into coastal waters. Under new regulations, however, sewage treatment plant operators soon can send their sludge only to designated areas in the open sea.
While the challenge of dealing with this pollution is daunting, the outlook is not entirely bleak. The OTA says that existing regulations - both local and federal - have begun to contain the damage and even have helped to improve some waters. Some major cleanup efforts seem promising, as exemplified by the programs the new Clean Water Act provides for especially bad sites such as Boston Harbor.
Much more action is needed. OTA observes, ruefully, that ``even with total implementation and compliance, which is unlikely, the regulations will not be able to maintain or improve the health of all [United States] estuaries and coastal waters.''
The US needs to deal with this challenge on many levels. Regulation could be tougher and could include more types of pollution. There's a need for more waste treatment plants. OTA calls lack of a systematic overall framework for managing waste disposal in inshore waters ``the critical missing link'' in US efforts to control this pollution.
But the problem transcends national borders. While the OTA report, of necessity, deals mainly with the United States, the assault on the sea that it documents is going on around the world. Moreover, as OTA notes, greater protection of national inshore waters will likely mean more pressure to dump wastes in the open sea.
Marine pollution by any country is everyone's concern. It's part of the general assault on our planetary environment by humanity's burgeoning population and economic development. Not even the vast ocean is immune to the changes this brings. We have scarcely begun to understand what those changes are. But damage being done to inshore waters suggests they could be disastrous.
Thus, besides dealing with its own inshore pollution, the US should join with other nations to learn what pollution is doing to the world ocean. There may be types of pollution that the world environment can't tolerate. We should identify these and work to control them. Marine pollution is a problem that no nation can understand or solve on its own.