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Great Pacific Garbage Patch Nominated for Superfund Status

Raising the alarm about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Center for Biological Diversity has called for it to be named a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site.

The patch is in an area off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean that’s twice the size of Texas. It’s where an estimated 3.5 million tons of floating plastic debris continuously circles clockwise in a vortex that sucks everything into itself. This toxic trash kills or injures thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and turtles every year while contaminating the environment with toxic chemicals.

In an effort to stop the damage, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity on December 11 petitioned the EPA to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the part of the estimated ten million-square-mile Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is within U.S. waters as a Superfund site.

The plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not biodegradable, so it doesn’t dissolve and disappear, but it is photodegradable. This means that it breaks down into small pieces that kill a million sea birds annually who ingest the plastic, thinking it is food. Countless sea mammals, turtles and other animals become entangled or are strangled to death in derelict fishing gear, plastic cords and soda-can holders. This enormous area of plastic soup will circle indefinitely, growing larger and larger at its periphery as more plastic is dumped into the ocean, unless steps are taken to stop it, according to Emily Jeffers, an attorney at the biodiversity center.

“Something this big and disgusting needs the kind of attention that only a Superfund designation can provide,” Jeffers said in the center’s statement.

Superfund is the environmental program created in the 1970s to clean up hazardous waste sites following the discovery of notorious toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal and Times Beach. Its official name is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. Superfund allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites and compel responsible parties to do cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-lead cleanups. The Superfund process involves assessing a site, placing it on a priority list and establishing and implementing a cleanup plan. It’s a long-term process.

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The center’s petition cites CERCLA in formally requesting the EPA to “conduct a preliminary assessment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in order to evaluate the hazards posed by plastic pollution to public health and the environment. This assessment should extend into the waters of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within United States jurisdiction in order to fully address the sources and hazards posed by plastic pollution to the marine environment.”

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were designated a national marine monument in 2006. The 1,200-mile chain of scattered islands and atolls is home to more than 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are unique to the area. As garbage is tossed into the Pacific Ocean, currents pull the debris into a vast, undulating mass. Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean, according to Greenpeace. Seventy percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor. The rest floats, ending up in the massive Pacific Gyre, with enormous amounts of plastic debris eventually washing up on distant shores, including the U.S. West Coast, as well as Hawaii. The toxic chemicals in plastic that are consumed by fish and birds move up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals and eventually to humans, who eat fish such as swordfish and tuna, Jeffers said.

“These deadly garbage patches have been ignored for decades and only gotten bigger,” Jeffers said. “If we’re serious about stopping plastic pollution from killing wildlife, we need to start the cleanup now.”

More on garbage in the Pacific:

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Bigger Threat Than Tsunami Debris: Scientists

Plastic Sushi in the North Pacific Gyre