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Environment: Saving the Seas

2 minute read

The oceans that cover two-thirds of the earth’s surface are its biggest dump. The theory has always been that the seas could absorb any amount of filth and sewage, but leading scientists have repeatedly warned that the waters’ capacity to purify lethal industrial wastes is limited and that poisons entering the marine food cycle become concentrated in fish.

Last week representatives of 91 nations, including all the major maritime powers, heeded those warnings and wrote a new chapter in the law of the sea. After 15 days of often bitter debate, delegates signed an agreement to forbid the dumping of highly toxic substances into the open seas. The new convention, which must still be ratified by individual governments, bans the dumping of a “black list” of horrors, including high-level radioactive wastes, biological-and chemical-warfare agents, long-lived pesticides, mercury and heavy-grade oils. Less dangerous substances—nickel, zinc, and silicon compounds—are put on a “gray list” and can be dumped only with the official permission of national governments.

Russell Train, chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, describes the agreement as “a historic step toward the control of global pollution.” But it is only a first step. For one thing, the convention does not mention rivers, which carry immense amounts of dangerous wastes into the oceans. For another, the pact depends on international cooperation rather than strict enforcement of clear standards. Each nation is called on merely to “take all practical steps” to prevent ocean dumping, including setting its own penalties for violators. In an “emergency,” moreover, a nation can ignore the bans after consulting with other countries on how to minimize the pollutants’ effects.

What will happen to the dangerous wastes now that they must be kept on land? Some, like nerve gas and toxic chemicals, can be burned in special furnaces. Others, like radioactive ashes, must be stored for centuries. But as expensive and troublesome as such disposal methods may be, they are preferable to poisoning the oceans, the last and richest frontier left on earth.

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