Not only does much of what flows into rivers and streams eventually end up in oceans, but for many decades we have used our oceans as a dumping ground for everything from industrial waste to discarded military weapons.

Wesley Marx provides a glimpse of the type of ocean dumping that went on for many decades. Describing the San Francisco Bay area, he writes that “Pioneer Rubber, Dow Chemical, the U.S. Naval Magazine, San Quentin Prison, and the City of San Francisco” all dump their pollutants into the bay. At least 293 pounds of chromium, 172 pounds of copper, and 60 tons of oil and grease were added to the bay on a daily basis, along with a slew of other chemicals. As urban critic Alan Temko remarked, “To be immersed in bay waters today is to risk having one’s skin peel from the body.” (Marx, 1967, p. 158) Although we’ve cleaned up our act somewhat since then, our oceans remain a repository for many types of toxic contaminated waste; both that flowing from our toxic rivers and that dumped into our oceans intentionally. The oceans may be big, but they are not unspoilable.

Toxic oceans

Seventy-nine percent of coastal waters in the U.S. are under a water contamination advisory at any given time – 80% of them due to mercury contamination. (Denworth, 2013) Which means that wherever you go in the waters off the U.S., you have a 4 in 5 chance of encountering toxic water. Areas near estuaries tend to be the most polluted, since they receive all the runoff from local rivers.

A 7,000 square mile “dead zone” (around the size of New Jersey) is growing off the coast of Louisiana from all the toxic runoff that comes from the Mississippi. (Hawken, Lovins & Hunter-Lovins, 1999) A report out of Brevard County, Florida, shows that flame retardants and pesticide byproducts are showing up at potentially toxic levels in sharks, rays and other marine life in the Indian River Lagoon and ocean surrounding Brevard County. (USA Today, 8-10-2015, p. 4a)