General Information

Description of the Program

Surrounded by the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Canada has a 243,790 km long coastline - the longest coastline in the world – which also includes the coastline of the country's 52,455 islands. The oceans are an important part in our country’s history and economy. Ports and harbours are used for shipping various commodities and regular dredging of waterways is necessary to keep these open and safe. Certain other low-risk materials may also be best disposed of at sea.

As a party to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972 (the London Convention) and the related 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution By Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972, (the 1996 Protocol) Canada is obligated to implement a permit system to control disposal of wastes or other matter into the ocean. Canada fulfills its international obligations, in part, through Part 7, Division 3 (Disposal at Sea) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA). Consistent with the London Convention, the CEPA controls disposal of substances into waters or onto ice from activities taking place at sea by way of a legislated general prohibition. This means that disposal of any substance into the sea or even into the sub-seabed from a ship, aircraft platform or other structure is not allowed unless it is done in accordance with a permit issued by Environment Canada (EC). Incineration at sea has also been prohibited and it is also illegal to import or export a substance for disposal at sea.

Only a small list of wastes or other matter can be considered for permits and these are individually assessed to ensure that disposal at sea is the environmentally preferable and practical alternative, that pollution is prevented and that any conflicts with other legitimate uses of the sea are avoided.  Permit conditions ensure the quantities, disposal sites and special precautions are well considered. Representative disposal site monitoring is done to determine if the use of the sites is sustainable or if any management action to adjust the site use is needed. Monitoring also supports permit compliance.

Permits are delivered through regional EC offices and the review of permit applications is a consultative process, between the applicant, EC and other regulators and stakeholders.

Land based discharges and discharges from normal ship operations or offshore mineral processing are not considered to be disposal at sea but are subject to other controls. Disposal at Sea provisions also do not apply in fresh water areas such as the Great Lakes.

History of the Program

In the early 1970’s the world’s governments recognized a threat to the marine environment from the uncontrolled dumping of substances, including hazardous waste at sea. Canada, seeking to protect the health of its oceans, joined other nations in drafting the London Convention, an international agreement that would commit member countries to stopping these practices and to promoting effective control of all sources of pollution to the marine environment, especially by dumping. In 2000, Canada also joined the London Protocol, an updated and more stringent international agreement respecting disposal of substances at sea. Canada meets its international obligations and supports its own pollution prevention objectives for disposal at sea through CEPA.

Canada has been preventing pollution from disposal at sea through permits since 1975, first under the Ocean Dumping Control Act, then the original CEPA and now under CEPA 1999. Its major accomplishments over the years include the banning of the disposal at sea of radioactive waste, then of industrial waste and finally moving towards a reverse list approach where all substances are prohibited except a small and low-risk list of wastes. The introduction of a waste assessment process that entrenches the principles of seeking alternatives to disposal, reducing or recycling waste, operationalizing the precautionary approach and requiring follow-up monitoring ensures that the system is able to improve the standards of environmental protection and administrative efficiency over time.

The Disposal at Sea Program has evolved into a Program that promotes waste reduction, performs science based assessments, manages risks and monitors results. EC’s Disposal at Sea Program staff works collaboratively with a diverse group of people, including representatives from other government departments, port authorities, private industry groups, members of the fishing community, aboriginal groups and members of the public. On specific projects, they may also work with authorities that protect habitat or marine resources and oversee normal discharges from ships or land-based activities.

Of late, there is also an increased interplay between different pieces of environmental law as the oceans may offer means to mitigate certain aspects of climate change. CO2 Storage in the sub-seabed and the practices of ocean fertilization or geo-engineering may require the attention of disposal at sea as the balance between mitigating climate change and protecting the marine environment is explored. 

Our oceans are also home to an increasing number of endangered species. As critical habitat for these species is designated to protect them, it become more difficult to maintain navigational safety while ensuring increased protection for sensitive species and their habitat. Where disposal at sea is proposed in areas designated as critical habitat or near sensitive species, the permit system will take this into account to ensure that recovery strategies are respected and that disposal at sea activities do not pose undue risks.

Why are substances disposed of at sea?

Disposal at sea is considered acceptable for non-hazardous material in those cases that this method of disposal is the most environmentally preferable and practical alternative. For example:

  1. In order to keep waterways safe for navigation, it is essential to dredge the harbours and channels. Clean sediment can be disposed of at sea if landfill space is not available or there is no option for beneficial use of the sediment on land. Clean marine sediment can also cause detrimental effects on land should the salt water seep into fresh water tables.
  2. For some remote fish plants, there are no practical ways of dealing with fish wastes besides disposing of them at sea. In other cases, it is because the usual recycling facilities are not available.

Permits are not granted if practical opportunities are available to recycle, reuse or treat the waste.

What kinds of substances are disposed of at sea?

Each year in Canada, between two and four million tonnes of material are disposed of at sea. About 90 percent of that quantity is dredged sediment from estuarine or marine sources or excavated native till from land based sources. Most of the dredged material is moved each year to keep shipping channels and harbours clear for navigation.

Here are a few examples of activities and their related substances involving disposal at sea that would be considered under CEPA:

  • The sand at the bottom of a channel is dredged and disposed elsewhere at sea to help control rising water levels and increase ship safety.
  • A fish plant in a remote location disposes of the fish wastes (flesh, skin, bones, entrails, shells etc.) at sea as there is no other practical option.
  • A ship is cleaned and sunk at sea when no ship recycling facility is available.
  • A rock slide occurs on a remote road along the coast, and the rocks are disposed of at sea for efficiency in cleaning up the road since the rocks do not represent a potential risk for the marine environment.
  • In a remote rural location, where there is no practical alternative, the offal from disease-free muskox is placed on the ice and allowed to fall into the sea during the spring melt.

Discharges from land or from normal ship operations (such as bilge water) are not considered disposal at sea but are subject to other controls.

How are substances disposed of at sea?

EC is the regulator for the Disposal at Sea Permit System under CEPA. Proposed disposal at sea projects are evaluated by regional staff in accordance with Schedule 6 of CEPA.

Only materials on the reverse list (Schedule 5 of CEPA) that have been rigorously tested and which meet the requirements of the Schedule 6 of CEPA assessment process, as well as its related regulations, policies and guidelines are approved for ocean disposal.

Permit Applications are reviewed by EC with advice from various interested parties which may include other members of EC, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and relevant provincial regulatory authorities. Views of other stakeholders and aboriginal groups are also considered.

The Permit application process has four phases (more detailed information is available in the Disposal at Sea Permit Applicant's Guide):

  1. Pre-application

    Applicant consults with EC to ensure all required information and assessment is completed prior to submitting the application.

  2. Submission of application

    The application form and supporting documentation must be completed to meet the requirements outlined in CEPA.

  3. Permit Assessment

    EC and other relevant agencies assess the information provided in the application.

    The permit assessment involves a numbers of steps. As of September 24, 2014, there will be a 90-day regulated service standard for Environment Canada to reach a permit decision once an applicant has been notified by Environment Canada that their application is complete.  In some situations the time limit will not apply. For example, if additional analysis or consultations are required to meet certain statutory obligations. As well, there will be a 45-day regulated service standard for Environment Canada to reach a decision regarding a permit renewal.

  4. Operations

    The Applicant may begin project operations on the permit's start date, and in accordance with the conditions stipulated in the permit.

Permits can be amended during their specified term to change certain conditions. Any changes made to a Disposal at Sea permit must be published on the CEPA Environmental Registry.

After an ocean disposal permit has been issued, EC enforcement staff may conduct surveillance and inspections at both the load site and disposal site to ensure compliance with ocean disposal permit conditions. Information on monitoring of disposal sites is available on-line.

Emergency situations

Under the Disposal at Sea provisions of CEPA two separate sections address emergency situations.

  1. Section 130 concerns emergencies where disposal is necessary to avert a danger to  human life or a ship, aircraft, platform or structure caused by stress of weather or similar conditions.

    An example would be a damaged ship jettisoning cargo to avoid sinking. In such a case, disposal is allowed to proceed without the permit, but the person in charge has a duty to report the incident to Federal authorities.

    The Disposal at Sea Regulations detail what the report must contain. EC reports specifics of emergency activities to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

  2. Section 128 concerns situations where disposal at sea is the only feasible solution to avert an emergency that poses an unacceptable risk to the environment or human health. Under this section, the disposal activity is still subject to a permit review, the fees, and public notice but the activity may begin prior to the permit's publication on the CEPA Environmental Registry. Before this permit is issued, EC is obliged to consult with the IMO and must try to follow its recommendations or advice.

What opportunities do I have to comment on permit applications or the program?

Every applicant for a permit must publish a brief ''Notice of Application'' summarizing the intended project in a paper of local circulation in the vicinity of the project and provide contact information. Many regular applicants also contact groups directly such as fishermen or aboriginal groups where they have an expectation that there may be an interest or concern with the project. Anyone can provide comments on a project and both applicants and EC will consider them as part of the permit review. In some cases, if the project is of larger interest or concern, public or stakeholder meetings can be held to discuss the projects and make adjustments where appropriate to address particular concerns.    

A copy of the permit is also published on the CEPA Environmental Registry. Comments can be provided to EC within 7 days of the publication date.

Where there are significant concerns about a permit, a person may, under CEPA Section 134, file a “Notice of Objection” to an EC decision to issue or vary the conditions of a permit within 7 days of publication on the CEPA Environmental Registry. When a person files with the Minister a Notice of Objection, the Minister may establish a Board of Review to inquire into the matter raised by the notice.

General comments, suggestions or enquires can be submitted to sea-mer@ec.gc.ca or they can be directed to a Disposal at Sea Program Office.

How can I get information about current disposal activities?

Basic information on permits issued under CEPA, is available online at the CEPA Registry (http://www.ec.gc.ca/CEPARegistry/permits/DisposalAtSea.cfm).