Toxic Mud Fouls U.S. Waters

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 9, 1999 (ENS) - A serious environmental problem may be lurking in the mud under the placid waters of U.S. lakes, rivers and ocean shores. Environmental groups say millions of tons of toxic contaminated sediment from harbors and shipping channels are dredged each year, then dumped back into waters where they can poison humans and wildlife.


Dredging in Lake Michigan (Photo courtesy Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences)
Scientists and environmental leaders from the Pacific, Atlantic, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico converged on Washington, D.C. this week to demand that human health and the environment be protected from toxic harbor muds. The groups cite a variety of contaminants in bottom muds, which are dredged to keep shipping channels open or to significantly deepen them.

Pollutants from factories, farms, streets and the air make their way through water into sediments. The chemicals include PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxin, mercury, lead and hydrocarbons, which have been shown to cause cancer, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects and compromised immune systems.


Fish with tumors, skin lesions and other problems have been found in the Chesapeake Bay (Photo by Craig Koppie, courtesy USFWS)
Every year, 100 ocean dumpsites receive 60 million tons of dredged harbor muds, the equivalent of six million dump truck loads of mud. Roughly 400 million tons of sediments are dumped into rivers, lakes, bays and estuaries annually, nearly three times the amount of mud that was dredged to build the Panama Canal. The groups called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to immediately ban dumping of contaminated sediments in America's waters.

"Like a muddy Typhoid Mary, sediments can be carriers of an unseen threat," said Beth Millemann, author of a new report released today, "Muddy Waters: The Toxic Wasteland Below America's Oceans, Coasts, Rivers and Lakes."


A number of long-nosed suckers with unusual growths have been found in the Great Lakes (Photo courtesy Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences)
"The most dangerous offenders of the industrial age have wound up in the muds below, yet the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers persist in dumping untreated sediments into America's oceans and rivers - a practice as sophisticated as medieval man tossing the contents of his chamber pot out the window," said Millemann.

In a 1998 inventory, the EPA identified hundreds of problem sites around the country, many of them located in coastal areas. In fact, every major harbor in the nation suffers from moderate to severe sediment contamination, according to the EPA.

The EPA is developing new standards to address dredging, but conservation groups say the recommendations are so lax that even more contaminated sediments could be dumped, and more pollutants could be spewed out of pipes and sewage treatment plants. The scientists and environmental experts, who gathered in Washington to attend a "Summit on Sediments," called on EPA to dump its weak provisions, not more toxic mud.


Harbor dredge is deposited on a barge outside Michigan City, Indiana (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
"We all lose when EPA weakens rather than upholds legal standards of ocean protection - natural ecosystems lose because they become ever more degraded and impoverished; the public loses because health is compromised; and national commerce loses because eventually the damage will be impossible to ignore and ports will be threatened with downsizing or closure," said Boyce Thorne-Miller, science advisor for SeaWeb and Ocean Advocates, national organizations that educate the public about threats to the marine ecosystem.

Leaders from 15 states with contaminated harbors attended the "Summit on Sediments." Speakers from six states and Washington DC spoke at a press conference today, and urged that treatment technologies developed by the private sector, and implemented in states like New Jersey, be adopted nationwide. New Jersey has developed alternatives to ocean dumping to handle all its short term needs, and a ban on dumping sediments off the state's coast has been in effect since September 1997.

"The barbaric practice of ocean dumping was state of the art in 1902, but in New Jersey, we're meeting the 21st century with new technologies that move us forward, protect the environment and create jobs," said Cynthia Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. "If we can do it, so must the rest of the nation," said Zipf. Clean Ocean Action is a New Jersey based coalition of 150 environmental, fishing, business and civic organizations.


This bullhead, deformed by a tumor in its mouth, was caught in Lake Erie (Photo courtesy National Biological Service)
The EPA has documented tumors, cancer, skin lesions and other problems in fish that came in contact with polluted muds in the Elizabeth River, Virginia; Black River, Ohio; San Francisco Bay, California; San Diego Bay, California; Boston Harbor, Massachusetts; Chesapeake Bay, Maryland; and portions of the Great Lakes. The environmental groups cite studies showing that women who ate fish contaminated with PCBs from bottom muds in the Great Lakes gave birth to babies with smaller heads and who weighed less, and who continued to experience developmental problems.

"Our families are fed up with cancer, birth defects and infertility especially when it's preventable," said Jackie Savitz, executive director of the Coast Alliance, a national coalition of environmental leaders. "As long as EPA fails to issue protective criteria, people and wildlife will continue to eat fish contaminated with toxics from sediments, making chemical exposure and health effects a fact of life."

The scientists and environmental leaders have united to demand action nationwide and in their home states. They released a ten point citizens agenda for action that included their call for an end to open water dumping of contaminated sediments, EPA's development of truly protective standards and the national implementation of alternative treatment technologies.