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DDT Clean-up

Still Contaminated After Years of Government Inaction

The Montrose Chemical Corporation of California was a chemical corporation that was the largest producer of the insecticide DDT in the world from 1947 until 1982. Its former plant in Harbor Gateway South area of Los Angelesnear Torrance, California was designated as a Superfund site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Montrose discharged over 1,800 tons of DDT into Los Angeles County sewers, which empty into the ocean off White’s Point. Montrose was allowed to use County sewer lines that run from its plant to the ocean dumping 200 tons of DDT off the Palos Verdes Coast.

DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 due to cancer causing affects and deaths of marine and terrestrial organisms. One of the leaders of the efforts to ban DDT was Rachel Carson, the founder of the environmental movement, who discovered that DDT laden brown pelicans could not incubate their eggs without crushing them. 

However, after more than 20 years of meetings and extensive studies, the dumpsite and Superfund site is still awaiting cleanup. Mitigation efforts proposed at the time, still under discussion decades later, are:

  • Attempt to degrade DDT by using anaerobic or aerobic microbes;
  • Cap the area with soil and hope nature would take its course;
  • dig up the DDT and transport it to an incinerator. (that sounds like a good plan, make it all airborne-MF)

Thus, there has been no action to clean up the toxins.

A special 150-page report in the 1980s by a California Regional Water Quality Control Board scientist Allan Chartrand, estimated that up to 500,000 barrels were dumped. The board approved the report--- and further investigation, but no action on the means to deal with the contamination. The report was ignored till Professor Valentine began new research.

Random Lengths has covered this saga since 1986. In a series of articles by David Steinman, who points out that Montrose produced one half of the world supply of DDT, investigations begin with blood drawn from local fisherman that had a rate of 3 to 10 times higher concentrations of DDT and PCB than the national average. Steinman refers to a previous study of DDT in Michigan farmers, conducted by the Michigan Department of Public Health Dir. Harold Humphrey documenting greater incidence of cancer, especially in women from DDT. 

At this time, the California state officials urged “pregnant women to eat no more than one fish per month.” Why is PCB so dangerous? Dr. Gary Wikholm of the Glendale Medical Center told Random Lengths then that “PCBs cross the placenta during pregnancy and are also found in breast milk. The result is a “neuromuscular immaturity” and side effects similar to pregnant mothers who smoke. In 1980, 100,000 people were regularly eating fish from Santa Monica Bay and waters off PV and LA and Long Beach harbors, according to the EPA researcher Ljubenkov. The report cites higher than allowable levels of PCBs in local mussels.

Complicity of LA officials with toxin dumping

Amazingly, this degradation of the environment occurred with the complicity of the LA Sanitation District, which said that industry had a permit to discharge PCBs into public sewer systems, especially the outfall near White Pt. No citation was ever issued against Montrose. Freedom of Information documents obtained at the time showed so that the pesticide levels had increased 100%. At this time LA County sanitation department sought a waiver to the guidelines of the federal 1972 Clean Water Act.

A 2019 study by researchers at UC Santa Barbara recently highlighted in the LA Times, estimates that between 377,000 and 500,000 barrels remain in the channel between Palos Verdes/San Pedro and Catalina Island.

A 2019 study by researchers at UC Santa Barbara recently highlighted in the LA Times, estimates that between 377,000 and 500,000 barrels remain in the channel between Palos Verdes/San Pedro and Catalina Island. The barrels contain a byproduct mix of toxic sludge made up of petrochemicals, DDT and PCBs was produced.

Dave Valentine Prof. of Biology and Earth science and UCSB, began his research in 2011 and with indisputable evidence campaigned for action by several government agencies, trying to get some response, but to no avail. Ultimately it took the October 25, 2020 LA Times story to solicit a response following public outcry. Valentine told Random Lengths that his efforts focused “on the reality of the deep dumping which was an entirely new area different from the original Montrose area settlement near shore. The first order of business must be to determine the scope of the problem, understanding the survey by Scripps, and that there are other dump sites. We don’t know how much more there is. There was another dumpsite that Montrose originally planned to use north and west of Catalina Island but decided not to. A question is, to what extent this site was used by others, or perhaps initially by Montrose.”

“The chemicals that are escaping from a variety of shapes and sizes of containers, from 55-gallon drums to other objects that appear to be a cylinder inside buckets filled with concrete to make it sink. We need to understand the processes actively going on with the microorganisms. The bioaccumulation of contaminants by worms and how DDT moves around through the trophic levels in the marine environment.”

Montrose never admits wrongdoing, nor charged with illegal dumping

Although they were fined in 2000 for illegal dumping of poisons, they never admitted dumping barrels of the poisonous chemicals.

As part of a December 2000 settlement, chemical companies that created the world’s largest DDT dump paid $140 million to help restore the ocean environment off Southern California.

Who owned Montrose? Chris-Craft Industries, a 50% shareholder in Montrose, Aventis CropScience, and Atkemix Thirty-Seven. With Montrose non-existence, who should pay for that clean-up that never happened? Those that bought the company and profited from it?

What is the complicit role of the EPA in not enforcing clean-up, in allowing, as they did with the recent Exide battery decision, the company to walk away with working people facing contamination, enhanced cancer rates, and higher morbidity.?

The settlement brought to a close a decade-long legal saga to deal with DDT that lingers for now 75 years on the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

In addition, the companies and local governments agreed to pay a total of $8.6 million to the EPA for onshore contamination around the Los Angeles plant where Montrose Chemical Corp. manufactured the DDT. What happened to those funds?

Funds were expected to be sufficient to pay for a massive project to cover much of the deposit and stop DDT from leaking into the environment. Funds were presumably paid yet the clean-up never happened.

Allegedly, most of the $140 million has been used by the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) to try to restore the contaminated sites. Half of the funds were allocated to the EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to rehabilitate ecosystems impacted by the poison. NOAA said it used its share of the funds to manage almost 20 restoration projects off the LA coast, like restoring kelp forest habitat, helping migratory seabirds and restoring 500 acres of critical coastal marsh habitat in Huntington Beach. The final project, recently completed, is an artificial reef off the beaches of Rancho Palos Verdes

While Montrose called the settlement “fair and equitable” they hypocritically denied liability and did not admit any of the government’s charges in the case.

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They vigorously fought the government’s charges. They said the DDT found in local birds and fish could be coming from old farm runoff, not their ocean dumping. They also contended that the DDT degrades naturally and poses little harm to marine life and people.

Today, hundreds of tons of DDT remain spread across 17 square miles of the Palos Verdes shelf in Santa Monica Bay and San Pedro Bay. The suit was filed in 1990, and in 1996 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the ocean off Palos Verdes a national Superfund site, designating it as one of the country’s most hazardous sites.

Government officials and researchers like Valentine at UC Santa Cruz have determined that DDT is seeping from the sediment on the Palos Verdes shelf and moving up the food web, from worms to fish to mammals and human eating toxin-laden fish. DDT is most dangerous to fish-eating birds of prey such as eagles and peregrine falcons, but it also is suspected of causing cancer in humans who consume contaminated fish and disrupting the hormones of marine animals.

DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) move from contaminated sediments into the water, so although the dumping of DDT stopped in 1982, the Palos Verdes Shelf remains contaminated.

As part of the agreement, the EPA could not seek future funds from Montrose for any offshore work. (So theoretically they, or those that purchased Montrose, are exempt from paying for the recent discovery. But who should pay now if not the polluters and those that bought Montrose-MF)?

Some biologists and engineers wondered whether capping the ocean deposit and trying to fix the damaged resources was worth the large expense. Some said the best and least risky solution is to leave the deposit alone.

But some programs from the settlement were implemented according to the Montrose settlement web site. 1”The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control used a share of the funding to reduce the exposure of people and wildlife to DDTs and PCBs. These agencies considered several remediation, or “cleanup,” options, and conducted efforts to prevent commercial catch of and reduce public consumption of contaminated fish.”

But state and EPA officials said at the that time the threat was too serious to Californians who eat locally caught fish, and that the companies that profited from making the DDT should be held responsible. So, what happened, why did the government turn a blind eye to this gross marine pollution?

People who eat white croaker, a bottom-dwelling and worm consuming fish, caught around the deposit face an elevated cancer risk from the DDT that is considered unacceptable under EPA guidelines. Asian Americans and immigrants consume most white croaker. Heal the Bay sampled fish in LA markets and found high levels of the pesticide.

Consumption of white croaker, which has the highest contamination levels, should be avoided. Other bottom-feeding fish, including kelp bassrockfishqueenfishblack croakersheepsheadsurfperches and sculpin, are also highly contaminated. Fisherpeople take note.

Recently discovered, and an alarming unprecedented rate of cancer in the state's sea lion population, with 1 in every 4 adult sea lions plagued with the disease. (10 December, 2020, Frontiers in Marine Science)

State and federal officials crafted a program to advise the public about the risk of eating fish caught in the area. This writer, in 2003, a teacher with a unique and the only inner-city marine Biology program in LA County, had firsthand experience.

Animo high school, drawing students from Lennox and Inglewood, formed a fifty-member marine Biology and Environmental club whose first public campaign was educating on safe fish consumption. This entailed distribution of multi-lingual materials produced by the Montrose settlement at community events, parent meetings, participation in Ocean science competitions, science fairs and distributing materials to fisherpeople at local piers.

Montrose was sold in 1987 to Rhône-Poulenc, then resold to Solvay, a Belgium enterprise) with 145 sites, Solvay employs 30,900 people in 53 countries with €12.4 billion in revenues. Another company involved was Stauffer Chemical Company and Chris-Craft Industries’ Boats, automotive, chemical divisions which went defunct in 2001. Another was Aventis, with $36 billion in revenue, $112 billion in assets.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has been pushing for action. The report “confirms my worst fears that possibly hundreds of thousands of barrels in DDT-based sediment were dumped in just 12 miles off our coast.”

So has Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn is calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to assess the extent of the damage and expedite the necessary cleanup. She also asked her colleagues to put the County’s support behind Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell’s legislation currently being considered in Sacramento.

“We now have confirmation that there are at least 27,000 barrels of illegally dumped barrels of DDT off our coast,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn. “This is appalling and those responsible for this need to be held accountable. We need the EPA to step in to assess the damage this dumpsite has wreaked on the local ecosystem and expedite the necessary cleanup.”

Adrienne Mohan, Executive Director Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy adding to the call for clean-up, told this reporter:

"Science has revealed the detrimental impacts that DDT has caused to brown pelican, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon populations (among other birds). While these species have recovered across their ranges from tragically-low numbers, research on this topic has proven how marine and terrestrial ecosystems are inextricably linked. The Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy mission is to preserve land and its native wildlife. It is alarming to learn of vast amounts of DDT dumped into the ocean off the shore of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and to think about what harm it may cause to the marine and land-loving wildlife in this precious region."

Chris Lowe, CSULB marine scientist and director of his shark lab participated in a UCSD Scripps town hall meeting and added these crucial comments:

“New data reveals a greater quantity of DDT (1800 tons), DDE (derived from DDT) and PCB (1200 tons) filled barrels but in 25 years virtually nothing has been done.” It is NOT buried. The LA Sanitation department knew of the illegal dumping and looked the other way (so who was paid off by Monsanto? -mf).

“There has been a transfer of the contaminants thru the food web, to fish, birds and humans. DDT binds to fat and bio-accumulates and bio-magnifies over time…so that those higher up in the food chain, like humans, get higher concentrations.”


He added that marine mammals have been feeding on poison laden organisms for some time and “since it cannot be metabolized, it is stored in the blubber, and the contaminants are offloaded to their offspring thru blood and mammary glands. The exposure to these toxins in humans causes tremors, hypersensitivity and is a known carcinogen. It disrupts the endocrine system and causes diabetes, obesity and impacts reproductive development.”

Mark Friedman