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The Sludge at the Bottom of the Sea

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - 11:15 AM

In March, 1986, when New York started loading up barges with human waste and dumping it into the Atlantic, 106 miles off the coast, the EPA told environmentalists not to worry, that sludge wasn’t going to affect the ocean -- hell, it wasn't even making its way to the bottom.

The EPA's argument was that the ocean was so vast, when the barges dumped the sludge it would disperse harmlessly into the trillions of gallons of saltwater. That’s when the benthic guys, those scientists that are very interested in the activity down on the sea floor, called their bluff.

Starting in 1989, a team of bacteriologists, ecologists, chemists, geologists, and biologists went out to the 106-mile site on multiple expeditions, diving over and over in a tiny submarine to gather data. What did they find? The waste had affected the ocean. It had settled on the bottom, 2,500 meters down. More than that, it had left a vast footprint, covering an area of 80 square nautical miles with a film 5 centimeters deep.

On October 30, 1991, Fred Grassle, the expedition team leader, presented Congress with a 200-page report detailing the effects of the sludge. In 1992, the 106-mile dumping finally stopped, but, all that poop? It's still out there.

The Spot

USGS/Mike Bothner

The map above was created from a computer model, before any dives began. Using data such as ocean current and particle size, the team predicted where the dumped sewage might have settled in the ocean. To confirm their suspicions, the team measured the amount of silver in the ocean soil. Why's that? You see, back on land, throughout the time of the dumping, silver was used in photography and x-ray development, and a lot of it was making its way into NYC's sewer system. By taking core samples and measuring silver levels, chemist Mike Bothner and the team, “were able to develop a plume, a contour of silver, that mirrored the [predicted] dispersion of sewage sludge.” The amount of silver in the soil in this area of the ocean was seen to increase by twenty percent.

The Descent



Collecting Samples

The incoming waste roughly doubled the amount of food on the sea floor by roughly doubling the amount of carbon. As a result, opportunistic “surface deposit feeders," or animals that feed directly on small specks of organic matter -- your polycheate worms, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins -- rushed in to this newly carbon-rich environment and began proliferating. “If you look around sewage outfall, there’s going to be some animals that really love that," says Rose Petrecca, a benthic ecologist and part of the 106-mile investigation. And once the deposit feeders were there, then came the larger animals that eat them, say for example your rattail fish. Though one can't say necessarily whether such changes are good or bad for the environment, Petrecca explains that benthic ecosystems are very fragile.

A rattail swims by the submarine:

A sea cucumber crawls out from the ocean floor:

Net Pull 

The team, self-named Sister Sludge and the Mud Studs for their muddy deep-sea exploits, wrangle a sea trawler that has pulled up a sample of the sea floor, and along with it larger marine life. In the video, you'll see them grab rattail fish, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins from the mud and throw them in buckets for lab testing. In the lab, oceanographer Cindy Van Dover will remove the gonads -- the area with the most tissue in the body -- of the sea urchin, freeze and pulverize them, and then test them for an isotope of sulphur present in human waste but not normally found in high levels on the sea floor. Ultimately, the isotope was found, showing that the waste had entered the benthic food chain.

ALVIN Dangles

To explore the sludge site, two scientists and a pilot are all crammed into ALVIN, a personnel sphere that’s six feet wide and six feet high. “The night before your dive, the pilot takes you into the sub for the first time," says marine bacteriologist Russell Hill, reflecting on what it was like to climb in to ALVIN that night, as a young scientist part of the team. "The pilots are checking you out to see if you’re okay in this confined space. They run through the safety issues with you. They explain what happens if something goes wrong. They show you where the fire extinguisher is." He laughs, "You’re in this tiny titanium sphere, thousands of meters below the ocean. If there’s a fire, it wouldn’t be a good outcome." Despite the odds, scientists have continued to use ALVIN for all types of ocean investigations, squeezing into that space for more than 4,300 dives and counting since 1964.

Special thanks to Mike Bothner, Rose Petrecca, Fred Grassle, Russell Hill, and Cindy Van Dover, the scientists who spoke with us for the story. 

Image of submarine ALVIN courtesy of Deep East 2001, NOAA/OER

Image of rattail courtesy of Deep East 2001, NOAA/OER

Image of sea cucumber courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives


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Comments [17]

BenThere from NYC

Hey. Some of the info in this is not exactly correct. I know this as I worked there during part of this. The main fact is that it wasnt POOP. It was sludge which is the remains of physically and chemically treated wastewater. It was also anaerobically digested after aerobic treatment. So by the time it was even loaded onto the barges, it was treated. Saying POOP strongly gives the feeling that it is directly from the toilet. It isnt. Secondly, the dates are not correct. Ocean disposal of sludge goes further back. This predates me. But the EPA required no ocean disposal by 1993. Now I think, but not certain, but it was 1986 when the EPA and the DEC told NYC to go to 106 miles from the 28 miles (or so) they were doing in the past. Again. This predates me. But again that was a time when the environment didnt matter much to most. Lastly, the report as I understood from the EPA was not dilution is the answer to polution, but was that they couldnt find any positive or negative inpact from disposing of treated sludge directly from human waste. I am not here to defend or lambaste NYC, EPA, or anybody. Just wanted to get some facts out there. And anybody from Radiolab interested in a verbal confirmation on my statements and creds, feel free to email me.

May. 29 2017 02:05 PM
larissa from Former New Yorker

why aren't you posting any of your radio broadcast shows to listen to?

May. 18 2017 06:12 PM
dr.pooper from NY

Bill Gates drinks poo water, give it to him.

Mar. 03 2015 12:25 PM
Spagetts from Levittown

Don't shit where you eat!!!

Feb. 22 2015 12:09 AM
Lyra A. Yeats from Barbados

Although this video was extremely disgusting, it was partially interesting as well. As a child, I always though that our waste was put in a tank at the bottom of the ocean where crabs waited (like in Finding Nemo). I found this interesting because it answers the question where does it all go, and what is it doing there? I think that the government should find a new place for our waste to go, because if we continue like this sooner or later there will be no more water for us to drink, or salvage. I honestly never want to drink water again after watching this!

Nov. 10 2014 10:25 PM

It isn't very surprising to see that our vain and selfish civilization has come to the resort of dumping our harmful chemicals into the ocean, along with our unwanted waste. The daft thought of shoving our waste where we can't see it (via the ocean) is ridiculous, just because we don't want to see it, the sea life that inhabits the ocean are the victims of that naivety. Sooner or later, our dumped waste is going to become more present in our diet, when the sea life has been so far contaminated with our garbage that we are basically harming ourselves as well as the environment.

Apr. 04 2014 10:18 PM
Pamela from NJ

And then bigger fish eat the rat tails - and we eat the bigger fish? Ye Gods! is there anything left on the planet that humans haven't shit on?

Feb. 01 2014 05:24 PM
reidh from US

As I said back in the 80's. "Bowels move, Bowels Move! Teepee Full of Sh*t!"

Dec. 21 2013 05:44 PM

"Flies eat S**t"

And to think, we kill flies, and then we are left with the s**t.

We really ought to understand and take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Nov. 24 2013 12:39 PM

Gene, I think what the divers' discoveries are far more broad than what you're asserting and that their consequences have been significant. They found that the sludge traveled to the bottom of the Ocean in concentrated substantial amounts and also effected the Ocean floor environment in the way that you described. Though one might think that an obvious conseqeunce of the dumping, at the time, law permitted the dumping on grounds of its effect on the ocean environment (or lack thereof). These data prove those assumptions to be wrong.

Nov. 20 2013 12:25 PM

Couldn't this also be a from of carbon sequestration? Over time doesn't this sludge get covered up by sedimentation? Wouldn't it then over millions of years become oil? Isn't this the idea behind carbon sequestration?

These are just my humble questions about a very interesting story. I'm sure Jad would ask these questions of Robert.

Nov. 17 2013 03:03 AM

Marialyce, OMG, HA!

Nov. 17 2013 02:56 AM
Jenelle from Heart and Mind Are Speaking

Gene, if it weren't for the multimillion dollar exploration, there would be 20 more years worth of s**t on the ocean floor.

That's also where the Navy dumped out of date equipment--entire jets, barrels of toxic fuel--since the mid 1960s the navy has was doing this off the continental shelf.

Nov. 16 2013 04:06 PM
Marialyce from Altadena, CA

I think I already knew about this from the Pixies song of the late 1980s: "Got killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey."

(This Monkey's Gone to Heaven).

Nov. 16 2013 03:37 PM
Sea Cucumber

The sea cucumber gave at least one quarter the hits to 2girls1cup.

Nov. 15 2013 08:52 AM
Sharon Taylor

Is this part of what God meant when He said he would destroy those who destroy the Earth? Wow!

Nov. 14 2013 01:24 PM
Gene from world traveler

Not to be incredibly stereotypically cynical, but is a giant surprise s**t earing animals showed up to eat the large amount of s**t on the sea floor, and then things showed up to eat them?

Multi millions of dollars and the cutting edge of human technology for the aquatic equivalent of "Flies eat S**t"

Ye Gods.

Nov. 14 2013 01:12 AM

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