Clean Ocean Action

Building Healthy Marine Ecosystems From the Bottom Up:
Recommendations for National Actions to Address Contaminated Sediments

Contaminated sediments and their associated challenges often elicit paralysis by regulatory agencies.  In fact, management of contaminants in sediments is often ignored until the problem expands into human health threats.  Only then do regulatory agencies respond, usually by putting fish advisories in place, or in the extreme, by designating the waterbody as a Superfund site.  Regrettably, in most cases, these reactionary and unproductive actions are also the final regulatory solutions.  The consequence of this approach is to leave marine life vulnerable to adverse affects. 


The core problem is that sediments lack respect - there is no legislative protection, no regulatory oversight, no protective standards or criteria.  In short, there is no “Clean Sediments Act” that provides protection to sediments.  Furthermore, sediments are a wasted resource that, if properly managed, can become a valuable material.


A comprehensive approach to address problems of the past and to prevent future problems would begin with legal recognition and protection of these critical habitats.   The goal of a Clean Sediments Act would be to stipulate that:

  • sediments must be healthy, protecting sensitive marine life at sensitive life stages and against bioaccumulation and bio-magnification of toxins 
  • protections must account for synergistic and additive effects from multiple contaminants
  • dredged sediments are a natural resource and should not be wasted by disposal in aquatic habitats.

Practical Implementation of Practical Solutions

Contaminated sediments should be addressed by taking the following four steps:

  • Locate and identify contaminated sediments. 

A nation-wide ecosystem-based approach should be adopted that monitors sediments that threaten marine life.  Levels of contaminants that are causing adverse impacts should proactively trigger regulatory and remediation action.  A system for identifying and assessing contaminant levels found in biota should also be implemented.

  • Reduce contaminated sediments in the ecological system 

Contamination levels that cause fish advisories for human consumption mean that marine wildlife may already be suffering ill-effects from the levels of contaminants present in the foodchain.  To protect marine wildlife, fisheries, and shellfisheries, the flow of contaminants into sediments must be staunched.  

  • Remediate areas and sediments that are harmful to marine life. 

The EPA and other federal agencies should actively support the national application of treatment, reuse, and remediation programs and/or technologies, for contaminated sediments.

  • Devise funding strategies to support the identification, reduction, and remediation of contaminated sediments and environmentally sound dredged material management. 

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