The need to protect the Atlantic Ocean against environmental threats — from the prospect of drilling for fossil fuels to plastics pollution and climate change — continues as Earth Day celebrates its 48th anniversary.
But there is a reason to celebrate when it comes to the world’s second-largest ocean.
Thanks to the work of activists and legislators, since 2000 there has been no legal dumping of sewage sludge, chemicals, medical waste or other trash just miles off New Jersey’s coast.
“The turnaround from being a national joke to the premiere destination for beaches is a testament to the power of people,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action.
For a time during the last century, all that dumping threatened to ruin the experience of ocean bathing.
Anyone who went to the beach in the late 1980s will remember bobbing in the waves along with hypodermic needles, plastics and tampons.
Beaches were regularly closed because of pollution, including a 1990 New York oil spill that brought tar balls to our beaches.
“Because we’ve been through the hard times, we know what (pollution) can do to the economy, and how important the ocean is to our identity,” Zipf said.
The nonprofit formed to combat ocean dumping, she said, and expanded to fight all types of ocean pollution. She has been with the organization since its start in 1984.
“We were able to get the dump sites closed pretty much one by one,” said Zipf, who said her organization created a coalition of all kinds of people in the community, including business people, moms, beach lovers and fishermen. “By 2000 we were dumpsite-free, for the first time in 100 years.”
The last site to be closed was the toxic mud dump off the northern tip of New Jersey, she said, where all the chemical-laden muck from Newark Harbor went.
As a result of ending ocean dumping, “we are slowly but surely starting to see levels of contamination in fish start to improve,” Zipf said.
Jersey Shore beach pollution was the main reason William Hughes Sr., then working in the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, decided to run for Congress, he said recently.
“I was a member of Save our Seas (SOS),” said Hughes, a Democrat who represented New Jersey’s 2nd District in Congress from 1975 to 1995 and later became an ambassador to Panama.
“Sludge was being dumped by Camden and Philadelphia seven miles off of Cape May, making a mess of our fisheries and shoreline, and impacting tourism, our largest industry,” Hughes said.
New York was dumping in the New York Bight, about 12 miles off New Jersey and Long Island, and created one of the most distressed bodies of water in the world, Hughes said, citing marine explorer Jacques Cousteau.
“Chemicals were being dumped off Ocean County and medical waste off Toms River,” Hughes said. “There was no regulation at the time of medical waste. In the ocean it was cheaper just to dump it. People were not coming here when notified the beaches were being closed for the bacteria count.”
So Hughes resigned from the Prosecutor’s Office to run on a platform of cleaning up the ocean, he said.
His first bill to ban sewage sludge dumping was signed by President Jimmy Carter, but it was later weakened by a court ruling.
“When Reagan came in, the EPA factored in costs and ocean dumping resumed again,” said Hughes.
Then he introduced a second bill, but “we were smarter this time,” he said. “We placed a fee for every ton of sewage sludge and other waste dumped. It became cost-prohibitive. That’s how we got New York City out of the ocean.”
Later, other Hughes bills banned medical waste dumping and plastics dumping in the ocean.
Zipf said 100 percent of New Jersey’s members of Congress are opposed to offshore drilling in the Atlantic, along with every governor of both parties since Republican Tom Kean.
“Chris Christie vetoed having a liquefied natural gas terminal off our coast and was opposed to offshore drilling,” she said. He was the only Republican governor in the country to do so, she said.
The New Jersey Legislature just passed a bill to ban offshore drilling in state waters along with the establishment of any infrastructure to serve offshore drilling, she said. State waters run to three miles out, while federal waters run from three to 200 miles out.
That legislation passed almost unanimously, with just one Assembly member from North Jersey voting against it, she said.
As a result of all that work, we see “a thriving ecosystem with everyone enjoying a whale show offshore,” she said. But of course there are challenges to keeping the ocean healthy.
“Working on a tie for the No. 1 position are climate change and plastics,” Zipf said.
But in the short term, “the threat that’s most alarming right now is possible expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling.”