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Ocean Dumping

Marine Protection, Research, And Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)

The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, is a critical piece of legislation in the United States designed to protect marine ecosystems from the harmful impacts of waste disposal, or at least to minimize the effect of ocean dumping on these ecosystems. 

The law effectively outlaws the ocean dumping of many forms of waste, except for those who have obtained a permit. This law significantly affects various sectors, including shipping, waste management, and environmental conservation. Violations of the MPRSA can come with significant penalties, both in civil fines and criminal sentencing.

Marine Protection, Research, And Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)
The MPRSA protects ecosystems from waste disposal and minimizes the effect of ocean dumping.

Simply put, MPRSA generally prohibits transporting material from the United States for ocean dumping, transporting material from anywhere for ocean dumping by U.S. agencies or vessels, and dumping of material transported from outside the U.S. into the territorial sea. A permit is required to deviate from these prohibitions.

Under MPRSA, the standard to obtain a permit is whether the dumping will unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, or the marine environment. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for developing ocean dumping standards for evaluating permit applications. The MPRSA provisions are published under 33 U.S. Code Chapter 27, Ocean Dumping. 

33 U.S. Code 1401 Congressional finding, policy, and declaration of purpose says, “(a) Dangers of unregulated dumping, unregulated dumping of material into ocean waters endangers human health, welfare, and amenities, and the marine environment, ecological systems, and economic potentialities.”

The MPRSA provisions that address marine sanctuaries are administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and published in Title 16 of the U.S. Code.

What is the Origin and Implementation of MPRSA?

The MPRSA was enacted by Congress into law in 1972 in response to growing concerns about the potential impacts of ocean dumping on marine ecosystems. 

This law creates a comprehensive legal framework to regulate waste materials disposal into the sea and safeguard human health, welfare, and the marine environment. The provisions of the MPRSA are now embodied in Title 33 U.S. Code Sections 1401-1445.

The responsibility for administering this law falls under the purview of two government agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Since its initial implementation, the MPRSA has undergone several amendments to adapt to evolving environmental challenges and scientific understanding; however, the basic provisions of the law have remained the same.

What Are the Key Provisions?

The MPRSA outlines specific prohibitions concerning the disposal of waste material in the ocean. It generally outlaws all the following three activities without a valid permit:

  • Transporting material from the United States for the purpose of dumping it into the ocean.
  • Transporting material from anywhere for ocean dumping by any U.S. agency or U.S.-flagged vessel and
  • Dumping material transported outside the U.S. into the U.S. territorial sea within 12 nautical miles from the shoreline.

What Materials Are Prohibited?

Under the definitions given in 33 U.S.C. 1401 and 1402, materials prohibited in ocean dumping are those that would unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, or amenities, or the marine environment, ecological systems, or economic potentialities.

These include, but are not limited to, municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes, medical waste, radioactive waste, munitions, and sewage sludge. The EPA also has the authority to prohibit additional materials from being dumped into the ocean if necessary to protect the marine environment.

33 U.S. Code 1402(c) says, “Material means a matter of any kind or description, including, but not limited to, dredged material, solid waste, incinerator residue, garbage, sewage, sewage sludge, munitions, radiological, chemical, and biological warfare agents, radioactive materials, chemicals, biological and laboratory waste, wreck or discarded equipment, rock, sand, excavation debris, and industrial, municipal, agricultural, and other waste; but such term does not mean sewage from vessels within the meaning of section 1322 of this title. Oil within the meaning of section 1321 of this title shall be included only to the extent that such oil is taken on board a vessel or aircraft for the purpose of dumping.”

What is the MPRSA Permit System and Exceptions?

The above prohibitions are not absolute. The MPRSA provides for a permit system to allow certain exceptions. The EPA evaluates these permit applications and determines whether the proposed dumping will unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, or the marine environment. 

The law sets specific permit issuance criteria and mandates the EPA to develop ocean dumping criteria.

Notably, there are some exceptions to the MPRSA prohibitions. While the MPRSA is stringent in its prohibitions, it also recognizes certain exceptional situations. For instance, the law permits emergency dumping to safeguard life at sea. 

However, such dumping must be reported to the EPA under prescribed conditions. Additionally, the MPRSA does not apply to acts committed substantially by compliance agreements or enforcement agreements entered by the EPA.

What Are the Penalties for Violating the MPRSA?

Violations of the MPRSA carry significant penalties, both civil and criminal. Any person who knowingly violates the provisions of the law, regulations promulgated under the law, or a permit issued under the law may face the following:

Civil penalties

Ocean dumping without a permit can result in the following civil fines:

  • Up to $50,000 per violation; or
  • Up to $125,000 per violation for the dumping of medical waste.

The MPRSA does allow for leniency in imposing these fines, taking into account such factors as the severity of the violation, prior violations, and the defendant's good faith in coming into compliance.

Criminal penalties

In addition to the civil fines listed above, someone who commits illegal ocean dumping may also face criminal charges. If you are so accused and convicted, you could face the following penalties per violation:

  • Criminal fines of up to $250,000 and
  • Up to five years in federal prison.

Most notably, under the provisions of the MPRSA, each day of a continuing violation and each vessel or source involved in dumping can be considered a separate offense. This means the civil and criminal penalties can stack up considerably for ongoing illegal dumping.

What Are the Possible Defenses?

If you're charged with violations under the MPRSA, a federal criminal defense attorney may be able to employ several defenses to counter the charges. These include, but are not limited to:

  • You had a permit: You can show that you had a valid permit issued by the appropriate authority, allowing for the disposal of materials into the ocean.
  • Necessity exception: The dumping was necessary to prevent an imminent and substantial threat to public health or welfare or significant harm to personal property.
  • Lack of knowledge: You were not aware, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that you violated MPRSA.
  • Unforeseeable circumstances: The dumping occurred due to unforeseeable circumstances beyond your control, such as extreme weather conditions or equipment failure.

If you are under investigation or indicted, contact our law firm to review the details and legal options moving forward. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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