May 19, 2020

DEP Snapshot: It’s 1988,
Legislation Passed on Ocean Dumping to Keep Beaches Cleaner

(20/S019) – A walk on the beach may lead to the discovery of a horseshoe crab, sea glass or a dozen beautiful shells.

Walking on the sandThirty-two years ago, some items that washed up on the sands of the Jersey Shore were not so lovely. The ocean waves churned up trash and medical debris, including needles and vials of blood.

Vacationers fled in droves, officials were forced to close beaches and tourism revenue plummeted.

Legislative bodies from the national to the local levels would be required to deal with the issue.

And now, a look at 1988 …
In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, prohibiting all municipal sewage sludge and industrial waste dumping into the ocean after Dec. 31, 1991.

Introduced in the Senate by then-Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and, in the House, by then-Rep. William Hughes (D-2nd Dist.), the legislation came in the wake of the infamous “syringe tide” of 1987-1988, which saw alarming amounts of garbage and medical waste – including hypodermic syringes and vials of blood – wash up on beaches along the East Coast. 

The pollution prompted a record number of summer beach closings along the Jersey Shore and caused an estimated $1 billion in lost tourism revenue.

The DEP convened a blue-ribbon panel of 16 experts to investigate coastal pollution problems in New Jersey and report recommendations.

The state Legislature also produced a suite of bills in 1988 called the Clean Ocean Package, which included efforts to address stormwater runoff and sewage discharge, and to establish a manifest system to track the disposal of medical waste.

Memorialized in music

The “syringe tide” was one of more than 100 headline events – occurring between 1949 and 1989 – that became the rapid-fire lyrics of Billy Joel’s 1989 hit song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:

"Wheel of Fortune", Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China's under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can't take it anymore …”

The tune, which appeared on the album “Storm Front,” chronicled events between the year of Joel’s birth and the year of its release. The Grammy-nominated song became a No. 1 hit in late 1989.