Deep Sea Sludge Dumps

December 27, 1991

Scientists have fought for decades to end ocean dumping of sewage sludge. They even convinced Congress to ban it. But now new information, developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has apparently convinced scientists there that Americans could indeed safely dispose of sludge in the deep ocean bottoms.

Environmentalists are skeptical. Nutrients from sewage have spoiled coastal and river ecosystems everywhere, they note. Supposedly barren deep ocean plains, the Earth's most geologically stable ground, contain bacteria, worms and other less-mobile life forms. Such organisms can cope with normally sparse nutrient levels, but what happens when they confront large amounts of food, which Woods Hole scientists expect them to de-toxify?

Not to worry, say proponents. Currents three or four miles down move slower than sea snails. And those cold, high-saline waters take centuries to mix with the lighter water above. Besides, although all cities have gotten out of ocean dumping (except New York), Americans produce 300 million tons of sludge each year. Space for landfills is rapidly disappearing and incineration or spreading the waste on farmland face increasingly strict environmental restrictions, as well as increasing hostility from local groups. Why not put sewage where it can't easily come back to trouble near-surface life?

Yet this solution may simply postpone and worsen an already huge problem. The glacial pace of deep-ocean currents still moves a lot of water. Consider the underside of the Gulf Stream, which returns nutrient-rich cold water to the continental extremities, fertilizing the fisheries food chain. How can we know a suddenly burgeoning deep-ocean ecosystem won't strip oxygen from such currents?

We remain skeptical about the Wood Hole plan for deep-sea sludge dumping. More research is essential. Fouling yet another untouched wilderness with human wastes when we don't yet know precisely what roles its organisms play in the global ecosystem is a scary idea.

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