WOODS HOLE, MASS., JAN. 10 -- A group of leading oceanographers gathered here today called for a massive experiment to test the ocean's potential as a dumping ground for millions of tons of sewage sludge and toxic waste.
In a proposal that flies in the face of prevailing public opinion, and challenges traditional ideas about the sanctity of the seas, the scientists proposed interring garbage in the deep ocean as part of an "industrial-scale" test of the health and environmental effects of marine waste disposal.
Although most scientists would prefer not to dump garbage in the oceans, researchers meeting here at one of the world's leading marine institutes say using the deep seas may be one of the only ways to spare the land and air from additional pollution from landfills and incineration.
"I don't think anyone wants to advocate ocean dumping," said Derek Spencer, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, who is leading the campaign to study ocean dumping. "But the waste problem is there and it's not going away. Indeed, it is going to get far worse. Perhaps the bottom of the sea is the best place for some wastes. Yet nobody wants to hear that."
Ocean dumping has been one of the most reviled ways for disposing of waste. Congress has banned all ocean dumping starting next year.
But the scientists say the dumping ban was propelled by "environmental hysteria." The deep ocean far from shore, they say, might be a more appropriate place for certain waste. They argue that the oceans may in fact be a far better place than landfills on the coast, which pollute inshore waters with runoff, degrading beaches and fishing grounds.
The proposal to experiment with deep ocean dumping is sure to run into vigorous opposition from Congress and environmentalists who have fought to protect the oceans.
"I don't think this is such a good idea," said Elliott A. Norse, a marine ecologist and chief scientist at the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington. "There are some folks who never take no for an answer."
To research the appropriateness of using the deep oceans as marine landfill, the scientists and engineers meeting this week at Woods Hole envision a major collaboration between academia and foreign financiers.
In one scenario, a million tons of waste a year or more would be dumped into the deep oceans for 10 years. Candidates for dumping include sewage sludge, industrial wastes and the toxic ash left over after incineration of garbage. A large ship would steam far out into the North Atlantic or Pacific, where it would lower by capsule load upon load of garbage.
Upon reaching the sea floor, about three miles below the surface, the door of the garbage capsule would open and spill out its contents. With the help of navigation satellites, the garbage ship would be able to return to the same site over and over again.
"I feel comfortable there is sufficient engineering understanding to allow us to say we can do it," said Chrys Chryssostomidis, a marine engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Spencer stressed that their experiment would be carried out in the deep ocean. The waste would be dumped in regions called the abyssal plains, where the sea floor is often covered in ooze and the principal inhabitants are worms and mollusks.
Spencer and his colleagues concede that ocean dumping could disturb the ecosystem. But at least one component of their experiment would be to monitor those effects and to learn whether the ocean floor recovers after dumping is stopped.
Indeed, at a dump site for sewage sludge 106 miles off the coast of New Jersey, and scheduled to close in 1992, researchers have noted only subtle changes in the mix of species living on the sea bottom. "There are effects, but they don't appear to be dramatic," said Fred Grassle, a marine biologist at Rutgers University.
In order to carry out their experiment, however, the scientists must overcome several obstacles. The Ocean Dumping Act virtually forbids placing any waste in the ocean. Moreover, agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are forbidden from funding research into ocean dumping.
Therefore, scientists are planning to join forces with investors in Europe, who would seek a permit to carry out the experiment and put up the estimated $130 million it would take to outfit ships and design the garbage capsules. Spencer said one potential collaborator is a Norwegian company called Energy Drilling, Inc.