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Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act

The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) better known as Ocean Dumping Act was one of the important environmental laws passed by US Congress in 1972.  It authorized the EPA to regulate ocean dumping of industrial waste, sewage sludge, biological agents, NBC, radioactive waste and other wastes into the territorial waters of the United States through a permit program. This prohibited dumping of material into the ocean that would unreasonably degrade or endanger human health or the marine environment unless a permit is issued under the MPRSA.  A prohibition on medical waste was also enacted in 1988.

The basic objective of the permit program is to prevent or strictly limit the dumping into ocean waters of any material that would adversely affect human health, welfare, or amenities, or the marine environment, ecosystems, or economic potentialities.

Many new provisions have been added to the original Act. These amendments include (1) research responsibilities for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); (2) specific direction that the EPA phase out the disposal of “harmful” sewage sludges and industrial waste; (3) a ban on the ocean disposal of sewage sludge and industrial waste by Dec.31, 1991; (4) inclusion of Long Island Sound within the purview of the Act; and (5) inclusion of medical waste provisions.

Four federal agencies that share responsibilities under the Ocean Dumping Act are the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Coast Guard.  The EPA has primary authority to regulate ocean disposal of all substances except dredged spoils, which are under the authority of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. NOAA is responsible for long-range research on the effects of human-induced changes to the marine environment while EPA is authorized to carry out research and demonstration activities related to phasing out sewage sludge and industrial waste dumping. The Coast Guard is charged with maintaining surveillance of ocean dumping.

EPA regulates the dumping of all materials except dredged material.  The Secretary of the Army is authorized to issue permits for dredged material disposal, and EPA is authorized to designate appropriate dump sites for such disposal.

Dumping restrictions were enacted for U.S. flag vessels as well as materials transported from a location outside the U.S.  For materials transported from a location outside the U.S., dumping was prohibited within the U.S. territorial sea and the U.S. contiguous zone.  The Act has provisions to control both the transportation of material to be dumped and the dumping itself.  The ocean disposal of radiological, chemical and biological warfare agents and high-level radioactive wastes are entirely banned.

The Secretary of Commerce is authorized to coordinate a research and monitoring program with EPA and the United States Coast Guard.  This is a long-term research program that studies the “possible long-range effects of pollution, over fishing, and man-induced changes of ocean ecosystems.”  Similarly, the EPA is authorized to conduct research vis-à-vis dumping alternatives and to consider, in cooperation with other federal agencies, the feasibility of regional management plans for waste disposal in coastal areas.  Congressional reports for the same are required annually.

Title 3 of MPRSA, aka the United States Public Vessel Medical Waste Anti-Dumping Act of 1988, prohibits disposal of potentially infectious medical waste into ocean waters by a public vessel.   There are two exceptions to this prohibition relating to health and safety of the crew, and times of war or national emergency.

This title also defines “medical waste” for purposes of the Ocean Dumping Act.  It adds medical wastes to the list of materials the dumping of which is prohibited under the Ocean Dumping Act; increases the civil penalties for illegal dumping of medical wastes under the Ocean Dumping Act and includes a provision for forfeiture of the vessel; and provides increased criminal sanctions under the Ocean Dumping Act for illegal dumping of medical wastes.

Permits issued under the Ocean Dumping Act specify the type of material to be disposed, the amount to be transported for dumping, the location of the dumpsite, the length of time the permit is valid, and special provisions for surveillance.  The EPA Administrator can require a permit applicant to provide information necessary for the review and evaluation of the application.

The Act authorizes the EPA to assess civil penalties of not more than $50,000 for each violation of a permit or permit requirement, taking into account factors such as gravity of the violation, prior variations, and demonstrations of good faith. No penalty can be assessed until after notice and opportunity for a hearing. Criminal penalties, including seizure and forfeiture of vessels, for knowing violations of the act are also authorized.  In addition, the Act authorizes penalties for ocean dumping of medical wastes.  It may consist of civil penalties up to $125,000 for each violation and criminal penalties up to $250,000, 5 years in prison, or both.  The U.S. Coast Guard is directed to conduct surveillance and other appropriate enforcement activities to prevent unlawful transportation of material for dumping, or unlawful dumping.  This act also allows individuals to bring a citizen suit in U.S. district court against any person, including the United States, for violation of a permit or other prohibition, limitation, or criterion issued under title I of the act.

Along with the Ocean Dumping Act, the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates all discharges into navigable waters including the territorial seas.

Inside Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act