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.

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.)

Citizen opposition to siting landfills, compost areas, or incinerators will delay sewer authorities' plans. Courts would have to step in to sort things out when regulators and dumpers are unable to find alternative sites.

Rather than stop dumping, sewer authorities will increase sewer fees order to meet the cost of fines. As penalties increase over time (11 percent per year after 1991), it becomes cheaper for sewer authorities to finance land-based alternatives. Money in the trust fund will then be available to defray costs.

``That possibility exists,'' says EPA regional administrator William Muszynski. ``It's possible there is a break-even point out there around 1993 or 1994.''

Whatever the timetable, environmentalists point out that the legislative solution adopted by Congress in many ways belies the problem.

They say the most serious dangers associated with ocean dumping - chiefly the health hazards related to toxic contaminants found in municipal sewage sludge - cannot be eliminated by simply dumping sludge on land rather than at sea.

The next major goal, environmentalists say, is for the EPA to carefully regulate the pretreatment of toxic discharges that empty into municipal sewer systems.

Getting industry to contain its own waste at the source is the most sound environmental method of dealing with toxic wastes and the most equitable, environmentalists say.

An 18-year battle to end ocean dumping The bill passed this year to ban ocean dumping by 1991 is not the first attempt by Congress to end such pollution. 1970 The President's Council on Environmental Quality advises that ocean dumping be phased out. 1972 Congress enacts legislation outlawing dumping of certain ``black list'' substances and allowing dumping of other ``gray list'' materials with permits. 1975 London Dumping Convention, an international treaty with provisions similar to United States law takes effect. 1976 A massive fish kill off the coast of New York and New Jersey sparks citizen interest in cleaning up ocean pollution. 1977 Congress enacts an amendment to the 1972 legislation calling for an end to ocean dumping of sewage sludge after 1981. More than 200 East Coast sewage treatment plants meet the deadline. 1980 New York City files suit against the federal government saying it cannot meet the deadline of the 1977 law. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is designated as the federal agency responsible for defending the law. 1981 A federal judge decides that EPA had not proved that sewage sludge is harmful to the marine environment. The judge rules that EPA cannot require municipalities to end ocean dumping until the agency had reviewed land-based disposal alternatives. The court decision effectively ends any effort by New York and New Jersey municipalities to find alternatives to ocean dumping. Summer 1987 So-called ``brown tides'' or algae blooms are found off Long Island, generating concern among scientists about ocean pollution. Summer 1988 Medical waste and dead fish wash ashore on New York and New Jersey beaches, again sparking citizen interest in ocean cleanup. Lawmakers in Washington introduce legislation addressing medical waste and ocean dumping problems. August 1988 New York City seeks a compromise in Congress to avoid stiff provisions of pending legislation. The city says it will cut its dumping by 50 percent by 1995 and completely by 1998. September 1988 New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R) seek a compromise by which towns in their states would agree to meet a 1991 deadline to stop dumping or pay modest fines if they did not. October 1988 Congress passes legislation mandating an end to ocean dumping by 1991. The bill awaits President Reagan's signature.

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