Disposal at sea: program information

Description of the program

Surrounded by the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Canada has a 243,790 km long coastline, the longest coastline in the world, which also includes the coastline of the country's 52,455 islands. Many of our waterways have to be dredged regularly to keep shipping channels and harbours open and safe for navigation. The dredged material may be best disposed of at sea. Certain other low-risk substances, for example fish waste, may also be best disposed of at sea.

Canada, as a party to the "Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972" (the London Convention) and the related "1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution By Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972" (the 1996 Protocol), is obligated to implement a permit system to control disposal of substances into the sea. We meet these international obligations through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) Disposal at Sea provisions.

The disposal of any substance into the sea, even on the seabed, in the subsoil of the seabed or onto ice, from a ship, an aircraft, a platform or other structure is not allowed unless a permit is issued by the Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) Disposal at Sea Program. Only a small list of waste or other matter can be considered for disposal. Permits are individually assessed to ensure that disposal at sea is the environmentally preferable and practical alternative, that pollution is prevented, and that any conflicts with other legitimate uses of the sea are avoided. The review of permit applications is a consultative process, between the applicant, regional program staff, and other regulators and stakeholders, including representatives from other government departments, port authorities, private industry groups, members of the fishing community, aboriginal groups and members of the public. On specific projects, we may also work with authorities that protect habitat or marine resources and oversee normal discharges from ships or land-based activities. Permit conditions ensure the quantities, disposal sites and special precautions are well considered.

Incineration at sea, as well as importing or exporting a substance for disposal at sea is prohibited. Discharges from land (except land-based discharges of dredged material) and discharges from normal ship operations (such as bilge water) or offshore mineral processing are not considered to be disposal at sea but are subject to other controls. Disposal at Sea provisions also don't apply in freshwater areas, such as the Great Lakes.

Our oceans are also home to an increasing number of endangered species. As critical habitat for these species is designated to protect them, it becomes more difficult to maintain navigational safety while ensuring increased protection for sensitive species and their habitat. We will ensure that recovery strategies are respected and that disposal at sea activities do not pose undue risks.

The program has evolved into a program that promotes waste reduction, performs science based assessments, manages risks and monitors results. Representative disposal site environmental monitoring is done every year to determine if the use of the sites is sustainable or if any adjustment is needed. Monitoring also supports permit compliance.

History of the program

In the early 1970’s, the world’s governments recognized a threat to the marine environment from the uncontrolled dumping of substances, including hazardous waste, at sea. Canada, seeking to protect the health of its oceans, joined other nations in drafting the London Convention, an international agreement that would commit member countries to stopping these practices and to promoting effective control of all sources of pollution to the marine environment, especially by dumping. In 2000, Canada also joined the 1996 Protocol, an updated and more stringent international agreement respecting disposal of substances at sea.

Canada has been preventing pollution from disposal at sea through permits since 1975, first under the Ocean Dumping Control Act, then the original CEPA, and now under CEPA 1999. The permit system allows Canada to meet its international obligations and supports its own pollution prevention objectives for disposal at sea. Its major accomplishments over the years include the banning of the disposal at sea of radioactive waste, then of industrial waste, and finally moving towards a reverse list approach where all substances are prohibited except a small and low-risk list of wastes.

A waste assessment process that entrenches the principles of seeking alternatives to disposal, reducing or recycling waste, operationalizing the precautionary approach, and requiring monitoring, was implemented. This process ensures that the system is able to improve the standards of environmental protection and administrative efficiency over time.

With the global community concerned about greenhouse gases (for example, carbon dioxide [CO2]) oceans may offer the means to mitigate certain aspects of climate change. Potential CO2 storage in the subsoil of the seabed and the practices of ocean fertilization or geo-engineering requires the program’s attention as ways to balance between mitigating climate change and protecting the marine environment is explored.

Reasons why substances are disposed of at sea

Disposal at sea is considered acceptable for non-hazardous substances in those cases where this method of disposal is the most environmentally preferable and practical alternative. Two examples are:

  1. In order to keep waterways safe for navigation, it is essential to dredge the harbours and channels. Clean dredged sediment can be disposed of at sea if landfill space is not available or there is no option for beneficial use of the sediment on land. Clean marine sediment can also cause harmful effects on land should the salt water seep into fresh water tables.
  2. For some remote fish plants, there are no practical ways of dealing with fish waste besides disposing of them at sea. In other cases, it is because the usual recycling facilities are not available.

Permits are not granted if practical opportunities are available to reuse, or recycle the waste.

Kinds of substances disposed of at sea

Each year in Canada, between 2 and 4 million tonnes of material are disposed of at sea. About 90% of that quantity is dredged sediment from estuarine or marine waters or excavated native till from land-based sources.

Only substances listed in Schedule 5 of CEPA may be considered for disposal at sea.

A few examples are:

  • the sand at the bottom of a channel is dredged and disposed elsewhere at sea to help control rising water levels and increase ship safety
  • a fish plant in a remote location disposes of the fish waste (flesh, skin, bones, entrails, shells etc.) at sea as there is no other practical option
  • a ship is cleaned and sunk at sea when no ship recycling facility is available
  • a rock slide occurs on a remote road along the coast, and the rocks are disposed of at sea for efficiency in cleaning up the road when the rocks do not represent a potential risk for the marine environment
  • in a remote rural location, where there is no practical alternative, the offal from disease-free muskox is placed on the ice and allowed to fall into the sea during the spring melt.

Opportunities to comment on permit applications

Every applicant for a permit must publish a brief ''Notice of Application'' in a newspaper circulating in the vicinity of the project summarizing the intended project and providing contact information. Applicants may also contact groups directly such as fisher or Aboriginal groups where they have an expectation that there may be an interest or concern with the project. All comments received will be considered by both the applicant and program staff as part of the permit application review.

A copy of the permit is also published on the CEPA Environmental Registry. Comments can be provided to ECCC’s Disposal at Sea Program within 7 days of the publication date.

Where there are significant concerns about a permit, a person may file a “Notice of Objection” to an ECCC decision to issue or vary the conditions of a permit within 7 days of its publication on the CEPA Environmental Registry. When a person files a Notice of Objection, the ECCC Minister may establish a Board of Review to inquire into the matter raised by the notice.

Related link

Finding information about current disposal activities

Basic information on individual permits issued under CEPA, is available on the CEPA Environmental Registry.

Enquires, general comments, or suggestions can be submitted to ec.immersionenmer-disposalatsea.ec@canada.ca or directed to a Disposal at Sea Program regional office.

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