A group of ocean scientists believes that the deep ocean floor—where, in many areas, geyser-like vents spew boiling toxic liquids that nourish bizarre varieties of worms and mussels—could provide a safe haven for garbage, sewage, and other refuse. The most optimistic advocates of this proposal believe that deep-ocean isolation of solid waste could inexpensively accommodate the entire planet's trash.
Half the earth's surface is located in deep ocean, more than 2.6 miles below the water's surface. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have discovered that most of the deep-ocean floor is lifeless, motionless, and geologically stable; the crushing pressures at those depths virtually prevent the currents there from "mixing" with the waters above. It takes more than 1,000 years for deep-ocean waters to reach the surface.
Much of the ocean floor is composed of sea ooze, a sediment that has the consistency of peanut butter. The scientists believe that refuse placed in sea ooze would stay there forever.
But the ocean floor isn't uniformly peaceful. Oceanographers have found tens of thousands of vents there that spew streams of naturally occurring toxic fluids by the ton. These toxics include heavy metals, petroleum derivatives, and hydrocarbons, and they leave the vents at temperatures that reach 650 degrees Fahrenheit. MIT's John Edmond has written that "the immediate vicinity of the vent fields is as contaminated as Boston Harbor!"
Surprisingly, the area surrounding these vents is choked with animal life. Nearby shellfish and huge worms eat the toxics. Deep-ocean creatures are chemosynthetic (not photosynthetic); they can break down toxic substances and ingest them as easily as we would a milk shake. These animals might consider our most poisonous garbage gourmet food. Edmond concludes that "deep ocean isolation sites are the safest and least destructive places to dispose of…waste anywhere on the planet."
While nonprofit Woods Hole can't urge any specific changes in policy, several scientists there have asked Congress to consider a test project that would place containers of solid waste in the sea ooze and monitor its movement, if any. Before Congress could authorize such research, it would have to amend the Ocean Dumping Act of 1988, which forbids any offshore waste disposal.
Environmentalists refuse to consider such a proposal. The Environmental Defense Fund's Sarah Clark offers a typical response: "The ocean should not be the garbage can for dumping human wastes."
But in Woods Hole's publication Oceanus, Senior Scientist Charles D. Hollister writes, "We have an obligation to reconsider the ocean's possible role in waste management." Recycling and conservation, Hollister contends, won't contain our waste-disposal problems.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (D–La.), a member of the House Merchant Marine committee, hopes congressional hearings will air these arguments this year. Louisiana has accepted solid waste from outside its borders and is interested in other ways to handle refuse.
A spokesman for Tauzin says the congressman "isn't for [deep-ocean isolation] or against it. He doesn't want to close out any new information that could help take care of the [waste-disposal] problem."
Northeastern residents may find the deep-ocean option attractive. Scientists estimate they can isolate waste on the ocean floor for no more than $120 a ton. New Jerseyites pay $400 a ton to haul their garbage to Texas landfills.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Floor Plan".