The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "suspended all agency activities supporting its ocean incineration program" because of "severe budget constraints," the agency announced in early February. The agency said cancelling the program will save $2.6 million per year. The program was to develop rules for ocean-going ships burning liquid hazardous wastes, to designate sites where such burning would be allowed, and to establish criteria for evaluating companies seeking permission to operate incinerator ships.
When the program was cancelled EPA was "nearing promulgation of final regulations for designating ocean incineration sites off the coasts of the U.S." and was just "weeks away" from seeking public comment on proposed regulations covering the permit application process and proposed criteria for evaluating permit applicants. The Gulf coast, the East coast, and the Pacific coast all have been considered as possible sites for ocean incineration in recent years. Citizen opposition has been massive and adamant.
The EPA had had only two applicants for an ocean burning permit--Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (CWMI), a subsidiary of the giant waste-hauler, Waste Management, Inc., and SeaBurn, Inc., of Greenwich, CT. CWMI owns two aging incinerator ships they bought from the Netherlands, but on New Year's Eve, 1987, CWMI withdrew its application angrily, blaming agency footdragging for its withdrawal, though to some environmentalists it looked like ChemWaste might just be playing possum. A spokesman for EPA said the agency's abandonment of its rulemaking program had nothing whatever to do with ChemWaste's withdrawal of its permit application a month earlier.
SeaBurn Inc. expressed surprise and disappointment at EPA's abandonment of the program. SeaBurn has no ships but claims to have received approval from the U.S. Coast Guard for a vessel design, and approval from the EPA for an incinerator design. They claimed to have received construction bids from shipyards but were awaiting an EPA permit before beginning ship construction. An earlier firm in the business, At-Sea Incineration, also of Greenwich, CT, had begun building two ships with federal loan money when they went bankrupt. The EPA decision throws into question the ownership of the two partially built ships that At-Sea had started to build in Tacoma, WA. Litigation is underway among private parties and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration, which had loaned money to At-Sea. The 1972 London Dumping Convention says an incinerator ship can only sail under the flag of a country that has "regulations resembling the parameters delineated under the convention." The U.S. has no such regulations so the ships, when completed, could not operate under U.S. flag in U.S. waters. It seems possible, however, that the ships could operate under foreign flag, or under the flag of a foreign subsidiary of a U.S. firm if the foreign country had issued the necessary regulations.
The EPA said that its suspension of its rulemaking for ocean incineration could be reversed if money becomes available in the future.
Beth Milleman of the Coast Alliance in Washington, DC, said she is "very pleased" by the EPA decision but said she did not understand "why they had to come up with that half baked story about losing their funding." She points out that for a decade EPA has continued to support ocean incineration as a method of hazardous waste disposal despite lack of public and congressional support, despite scientific and legal concerns raised during public debate on the issue, and despite the recent decision by several European governments to abandon ocean incineration in the North Sea by Jan. 1, 1995.
Ms. Milleman said EPA's decision to close up shop within weeks of
ChemWaste's abandonment of its permit application was "no
coincidence" and "speaks volumes about who is setting hazardous
waste policy in this country." She added that "if the EPA has any
sense, they won't start the program up again." The Coast Alliance
can be reached by phone: (202) 265-5518.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: incineration; ocean incineration; epa; siting; criteria; regulations; citizen groups; cwmi; wmi; SeaBurn; ct; at-sea incineration; inc.; dot; federal; beth milleman; coast alliance; congress;