Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment
UNCED - U.S.A. National Report


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Oceans and Coastal Resources

UNCED - U.S.A. National Report


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Oceans and Coastal Resources


Coastal and Marine Pollution

In the 1970s, municipal sewage and contaminants in industrial wastewater were the primary sources of pollution. The construction of sewage treatment plants in coastal cities and installation of wastewater treatment plants at industrial facilities during the past two decades has curtailed many of the problems caused by these Sources. Additional efforts currently underway should address remaining sewage treatment problems.22 Non-point sources, stormwater, and combined storm and sanitary sewers, remain the largest challenges to fully addressing coastal pollution.

Coastal Pollution

Growing coastal populations are generating an increasing amount of municipal sewage, urban runoff, and marine debris. Industrial manufacturing and processing plants, landfills, dock and marina structures, agricultural runoff and littering by the general population also contribute to marine pollution problems. The United States has initiated a number of measures to combat coastal pollution problems. The status of some of these programs is discussed below. In addition, special programs have been established for the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

Sewage Treatment. In the past, one of the most severe sources of coastal pollution was municipal sewage. In some areas, coastal waters subject to limited tidal flushing action received sewage treated by only very basic, or primary, treatment procedures, and some received entirely untreated sewage either all the time or when rainfall overloaded combined storm and sanitary sewer systems. More municipal sewage is now treated prior to discharge into coastal as well as fresh waters. The U.S. population served by sewage treatment facilities providing secondary treatment or better has increased from 85 million in 1972 to 144 million in 1988 and the population served by raw discharge facilities has dropped from five million to one million during the same period.23 Significant improvements in coastal water quality have been achieved for many of the nation's coastal cities since implementation of secondary, and in a few cases tertiary, or advanced, wastewater treatment However, in a few of the nation's largest and oldest cities, such as the Boston, Massachusetts metropolitan area, antiquated treatment plants have not yet been fully upgraded; improvements have been undertaken in the past several years. Rebuilding sewer systems to separate combined sanitary and storm sewers also presents formidable problems due to the high cost and logistic difficulties of rebuilding old sewer systems in extremely dense population centers such as the New York and Boston metropolitan areas.

Non-point and Other Diffuse Sources. Non-point source runoff from agricultural and urban areas has been more difficult to control. The United States continues to use focused geographic approaches designed to protect particularly fragile or threatened coastal areas from non-point and other diffuse sources. Model urban runoff stormwater programs are in place for Puget Sound in the state of Washington and in several other cities; these programs have demonstrated reductions in toxic and other pollutant loadings.

Agricultural management practices are being implemented through voluntary programs specifically aimed at coastal protection in the Chesapeake Bay, the North Carolina sounds and other coastal areas. Some states also limit suburban development and other construction in buffer zones along their estuarine coastlines. However, continuing development and incomplete protection against non-point source impacts continue to threaten water quality in many coastal areas. The United States is trying a new approach under the 1990 amendments of the Coastal Zone Management Act. The act combines water quality and coastal zone management activities into Coastal Non-point Pollution Control Programs, which coastal states are required to develop by the end of 1994.

One area currently receiving increased recognition and remaining to be addressed is the contribution of airborne sources of nutrient and toxic pollutants. Airborne sources of pollutants deposited into coastal water bodies are now estimated, in some cases, to contribute from 10 to 46 percent of nitrogen loads and significant portions of phosphorus loads to some major northeast estuaries.24

Direct and Indirect Industrial Discharges. Direct discharges into coastal waters from industrial point sources have been markedly controlled in the past 20 years. Large proportions of previously released toxic and conventional pollutants have been removed from the waste streams of many large industrial and manufacturing facilities. This has resulted in improved coastal water. quality in the immediate vicinity of the plants. Development of regulations for some additional industrial categories which are not yet covered, as well as revisions to existing regulations, are expected to bring about additional reductions in the discharge of toxic and conventional water pollutants.

Additional efforts are needed to adequately control toxic water pollutants from industrial and commercial facilities that discharge waste to municipal sewage treatment plants. The program for controlling these industrial releases called the pretreatment program, requires each municipality to regulate these "indirect discharges. Most waste treatment plants have not been designed to treat toxic pollutants. These pollutants can kill microbes that are part of the treatment process ~ the sewage treatment plan Therefore, most industrial facilities must "preterit" their effluent before discharging to the municipal sewer system. Pretreatment programs are now in place in almost all largo municipalities. However, compliance monitoring difficulties combined with municipal budget constraints have made this a difficult program for some cities to conduct with full success.

Cumulative Minor Point Source Effects. Toxic and conventional pollution of the coastal environment from a myriad of small commercial, industrial or resource extraction facilities has not yet been adequately addressed. These facilities have sometimes not been thoroughly controlled because a higher regulatory priority has been placed on large dischargers to achieve the largest individual pollutant load reductions. However, in some areas it appears that concentrations of many "minor" facilities are causing serious coastal water quality impairments.

Floatables Nor-Biodegradables and Other Trash. Floatable trash is an aesthetic problem and poses serious ecological risks. Several states and municipalities have begun major trash cleanup programs, often mobilizing citizen volunteers and instituting public education campaigns. In 1990, 109,000 volunteers nationwide cleared 5,850 kilometers of coastline and collected more than 1,320 tons of trash.25 New York City has been reexamining the management of its enormous solid waste stream in an effort to minimize contributions to the sea via storm sewers, spills from trash barges and other sources. The United States is working toward better control of storm sewers and combined sewer overflow and expects these controls to reduce the release of floatables from these sources.


The Chesapeake Bay, with a surface area of 5.720 square kilometers. is the largest estuary in the United States. It is fed by 150 tributary rivers and streams and supports 2,500 species of plants and animals and 13 million people.

Exhibit 6d.5

Chesapeake Bay Oyster Harvest Has Dropped Dramatically

Source: U.S. EPA, Office of Water, National Water Quality Inventory: 1998 Report to Congress

In recent decades. the bay suffered serious declines in quality and productivity. in 1975, elevated public concerns led to a $27 million. Environmental Protection Agency-directed study of the causes of the decline. Overabundance of phosphorus and nitrogen was seen as the dominant cause of explosive algal growth that blocked out sunlight which bay grasses needed to survive. and depleted dissolve oxygen levels essential to all bay life. These conditions triggered a downward spiral of plants and animals competing for the depleted oxygen. The main sources of the excess nutrient loads include agricuItural lands, specifically fertilizers and animal wastes. as well as urban and suburban waste discharges and runoff. and atmospheric deposition.

Exhibit 6d.6

Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Increasing Mid-Bay

Source: U.S. EPA, The Chesapeake Bay - A Progress Report, August 1991, p.5

Though numerous federal and state pollution control and resource restoration programs were in operation. they were fragmented and unfocused. The EPA study recommendations provided a framework for coordinated. goal-driven actions by the three bay-bordering states (Maryland. Pennsylvania and Virginia). the District of Columbia. the Chesapeake Bay Commission (an interstate body for legislative coordination) and the federal government. To reduce algal growth and its impacts on submerged aquatic vegetation and dissolved oxygen levels, a 40-percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous loadings to the bay became a dominant goal of the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement.

The Chesapeake Bay restoration has proceeded on many fronts. These include improved sewage treatment. phosphate detergent bans, better compliance with environmental requirements by federal facilities. reduced fertilizer use and improved animal waste management. better erosion control. a moratorium on striped-bass fishing. and construction of a fish passage facility at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. Plans are underway or already being implemented to restrict shoreline development. further improve controls on urban and farm runoff. protect wetlands. reduce pollutant discharges from recreational boats, improve fisheries management and limit discharges of toxic chemicals.

Bay water quality improvements reported in 1991 included a 20-percent reduction in total phosphorus since 1985. even though wastewater flows from municipal sources continued to grow. This progress is Attributed primarily to reductions of phosphorus loadings from point source discharges. But non-point source control efforts on farm lands and a ban on phosphate detergents also contributed to reductions. Submerged aquatic vegetation. the most sensitive indicator of overall water quality improvement In the bay. increased its coverage in the mid-bay by 57 percent since 1984. Striped bass are increasing. again allowing sport and commercial fishing for this popular fish.

Nitrogen levels. however, have continued to rise due mostly to continuing population growth and related increases in wastewater flows 'without removal of their nitrate content. A major reduction is expected from the 3-percent cut in nitrogen fertilizer use. But this result will take some time to show up because nitrogen travels from fields to the bay predominately through groundwater. a process that takes several years. Another concern is nitrogen deposition from the air (primarily from power plants and vehicle emissions). which may constitute nearly 40 percent of the loadings to the bay from human sources.

The parties to the 1987 Chesapeake Bay, Agreement are currently reevaluating their commitment to a 40-percent reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the bay by the year 2000. This evaluation is expected to provide a refined bay-wide nutrient reduction commitment. including basin-specific nutrient reduction targets and revised strategies to achieve the water quality and living resources goals.

Open Ocean Pollution

Since the early 1970s, major progress has been made by the United States in controlling pollution in the open ocean. Ocean waters within the U.S. EEZ are relatively unpolluted compared to nearshore coastal waters. This is in part because pollutants disperse in the open ocean, but also because the United States has significantly reduced most direct ocean releases of pollutants. Material being disposed of in open ocean areas along the U.S. outer continental shelf now consists primarily of oil and gas drill rig discharges (mainly from drill cuttings with some drilling mud), sediments from dredging operations and ship discharges. Strict regulations limit materials that can legally be disposed of in the open ocean. Federal agencies have taken steps to discourage the use of some kinds of fishing gear and other shipboard equipment that increase the amount of trash in marine waters.

Ocean Dumping of Sewage Sludge. Dumping of sewage sludge increased from 4.8 million tons in 1973 to 8.7 million tons in 1989. Until 1986, sludge from nine New York and New Jersey sewage authorities was dumped at a site 19 kilometers offshore. In 1986, this dumping was moved to another site 170 kilometers offshore. Six of these nine sludge dumpers terminated their operation in March 1991. Two more will cease dumping in December 1991, and the last remaining offender is scheduled to cease dumping in June 1992. In order to end their ocean dumping, these sewerage authorities either have switched or will soon switch to beneficial re-use (recycling) of sludge or more costly sludge disposal methods, such as land disposal at permitted facilities or incineration, as a result of the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988.

Cessation of Industrial Ocean Dumping. Between 1973 and 1987, the amount of U.S. industrial waste dumped in the ocean annually declined steadily from about six million tons to well under one million tons. Permitted ocean dumping of industrial wastes ceased in September 1988. Pollution traces from old sites can still be found in some areas, but the current impacts are considered minor or negligible. There are also prohibitions on disposal of highlevel radioactive waste in ocean waters.


22. MM. Main, D.R.G. Farrow and F.D. Arnold, Publicly Owned Treatment Works in Coastal Areas of the USA (Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Strategic Assessment Branch, Oceans Assessments Division: 1987), 20pp + Appendices.

23. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Municipal Pollution Control, 1988 Needs Survey Report to Congress, EPA 430/09-89-001 (February 1989), p. C-9.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation, Environmental Progress and Challenges (August 1988), p.49.

24. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, A Plan for Research and Monitoring of Atmospheric Nitrogen and Toxic Pollutants in Coastal Waters: A Report to Congress, EPA/600/9-89/061 (June 1, 1989).

Peter M. Groffman and N.A. Jaworski, Upper Potomac River Basin Case Study, New Perspectives in the Chesapeake System, A Research and Management Partnership: Proceedings of a Conference, December 4-6, 1990, CRC Publication no.137 (Baltimore, MD: Chesapeake Research Consortium: 1990).

25. Center for Marine Conservation, Cleaning North America's Beaches: Results of the 1990 National Beach Cleanup (Washington, D.C.: May 1991), 291pp.

Additional References:

Breiwick, J.M., and H.W. Braham. 'The Status of Endangered Whales." Marine Fisheries Review vol.46, no. 4 (1984): pp.1-64. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service.

Council on Environmental Quality. Environmental Quality - 21st Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Service: 1990. 388pp.

Groffman, P.M., and N.A. Jaworski. "Upper Potomac River Basin Case Study." New Perspectives in the Chesapeake System, A Research and Management Partnership: Proceedings of a Conference. December 4-6, 1990. CRC Publication no.137. Chesapeake Research Consortium, 1990.

Hall, M.H., and S.D. Boyer. "Incidental Mortality o{Dolphins in the Tuna Purse-Seine Fishery in the Eastern Pacific Ocean During 1988.~ Report of the International Whaling Commission, no.40: 1990: pp.461462.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Waterborne Commerce of the United States. Calendar Year 1988. Part 5, National Summaries. WRSC-WCCUS-88-5. Water Resources Support Center. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing office: 1990. 107pp.

U.S. Department of Commerce. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. National Ocean Service. Coastal Environmental Quality in the United States, 1990. Chemical Contamination in Sediment and Tissues. Rockville, MD: Strategic Assessment Branch, Oceans Assessment Division: October 1990. 34pp.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Fish and Wildlife Service. Administration of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 - Annual Report. January 1.1989 to December 31, 1989. Washington, D.C.: Fish and Wildlife Service: 1990: 54pp.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A Plan for Research and Monitoring of Atmospheric Nitrogen and Toxic Pollutants in Coastal Waters: A Report to Congress. June 1, 1989.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. office of Water. Progress in the National Estuary Program. Report to Congress. (WH-556F) (EPA 503/9-90-005). February 1990. 44pp.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Report to Congress on the Implementation of Section 403C of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: June 1990.

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