Chemical Firms Settle DDT Suit
Chemical companies that created the world’s largest DDT dump will pay $73 million to help restore the ocean environment off Southern California, according to a court settlement filed Tuesday.
The settlement brings to a close a decade-long legal saga in which the government sought to win hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with DDT that has lingered for half a century on the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Now the state and federal government will begin the long process of trying to heal the ecological wounds inflicted by the 100-ton pesticide deposit.
“This agreement resolves one of the most damaging chapters in California’s environmental history,” said Gov. Gray Davis. “It is an important step toward addressing the mistakes of the past, restoring the splendor of our ocean environment and protecting the public health of all Californians.”
U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Lois Schiffer said the settlement “ends years of acrimonious litigation” and “gives a critical boost” to ridding California’s coastal environment of an old contaminant that is harmful to wildlife and people.
Other parties in the case--led by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts--had already settled, bringing the total to $136.7 million, plus interest, that will be spent to help repair Southern California’s marine ecosystem. 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.
The $145-million total is one of the largest payments in the nation for a natural resource case.
Montrose and the other companies negotiated the settlement midway through their trial after U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real issued their defense some major setbacks.
In addition to Montrose, the companies are Chris-Craft Industries, a 50% shareholder in Montrose, Aventis CropScience USA, and Atkemix Thirty-Seven, which were owners and operators of the plant.
In a consent decree filed Tuesday, the companies called the settlement “fair and equitable” but they denied liability and did not admit any of the government’s charges in the case.
“The reason for the settlement is to put an end to a decade of costly and resource-intensive litigation,” said Los Angeles attorney Peter Simshauser, who represents Chris-Craft.
The companies vigorously fought the government’s charges. They said the DDT found in the birds and fish in the area could be coming from old farm runoff, not their ocean deposit. They further contended that the DDT is degrading naturally and posing little harm to marine life and people.
Karl Lytz, Montrose’s lead attorney, said the company “continues to dispute”’ the government’s charges but “we’re glad to see the matter brought to a final resolution.”
The U.S. Justice Department and California attorney general’s office had originally been seeking $150 million from the four companies. But the plaintiffs said they feel victorious with half that amount, especially because the funds are expected to be sufficient to pay for a massive project to cover much of the deposit and stop DDT from leaking into the environment.
California Deputy Atty. Gen. John Saurenman, one of several attorneys handling the government’s case, called it a good deal for Californians.
“A lot of money has been generated out of this case. A hundred and forty million is not chump change,” he said. “It’s going to be spent to benefit the public and try to clean up the offshore environment, so that’s a good deal.”
From 1947 until 1971, Montrose discharged an estimated 1,800 tons of DDT into Los Angeles County sewers, which empty into the ocean off White’s Point. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.
Today, about 100 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 say that the old DDT is seeping from the sediment on the Palos Verdes shelf and moving up the food web, from worms to mammals. 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.
Real, who took over the case last year and had been encouraging both sides to reach a deal, must now review the details of the consent decree.
Under the terms, the four companies will pay $33 million to the EPA to clean up the contamination. An additional $30 million will be used for projects chosen by state and federal agencies to restore damaged birds, fish and other resources. The last $10 million is “swing” money that will go to the EPA if necessary to maintain the cleanup project, or to resource recovery.
The combined settlements “should be more than sufficient” to cap several square miles of the DDT deposit, said John Lyons, the EPA’s regional counsel.
As part of the agreement, the EPA cannot seek future funds from Montrose and the others for any offshore work.
The judge, however, has yet to decide how much more the companies should pay to cover future cleanup costs at the now-defunct plant. No settlement was reached on that part of the case. Residents of about a dozen households will be temporarily moved to clean up the waste.
Experts Differ on Solutions
Removing the DDT from the ocean floor could be a logistical nightmare. Instead, the EPA is expected to cover part of the deposit with a layer of sand dredged from the nearby harbor. Construction of the cap could begin as soon as 2002. An experiment to cap a small area took place last summer.
Some biologists and engineers have wondered whether capping the ocean deposit and trying to fix the damaged resources is worth the large expense. Some say the best and least risky solution is to leave the deposit alone.
But officials say the threat is too serious to Southern Californians who eat locally caught fish, and that the companies that profited from making the DDT will now be held responsible.
“We look forward to the day when the public can safely eat fish caught on the Palos Verdes shelf,” Secretary of Commerce Norman Y. Mineta said Tuesday.
The $30 million earmarked for resource recovery “is one of the largest single payments ever made in a case not involving an oil spill,” Saurenman said. Along with $34 million from the previous settlement, it will be awarded to the trustees, a group of federal and state resource agencies led by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mike Spear, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California office, said the money will enable the government to restore bald eagles, peregrine falcons and sea birds to the Channel Islands.
An estimated $11 million is expected to be used to help bald eagles on Santa Catalina Island. NOAA and the other agencies will soon hold hearings seeking public input on how, specifically, to spend the funds.
Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, said the government’s top priority should be enforcing and expanding a ban on commercial fishing of white croaker, as well as funding efforts to warn the public about eating contaminated fish from the area.
People who eat white croaker, a bottom-dwelling fish, caught around the deposit face an elevated cancer risk from the DDT that is considered unacceptable under EPA guidelines. Asian Americans consume most white croaker. Heal the Bay sampled fish in Southern California Asian markets and found high levels of the pesticide.
State and federal officials say they have begun crafting a program to advise the public about the risk of eating fish caught in the area. The program could begin early next year.
“Obviously the great news is that this [litigation] is finally over,” Gold said. “Now we need to get those dollars out there for these long overdue measures.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Four chemical companies responsible for a large deposit of DDT on the Palos Verdes Shelf will pay $73 million to restore the ocean environment off the coast of Southern California.
Paid by Montrose Chemical Corp., Chris-Craft Industries, Aventis CropScience USA Inc. and Atkemix Thirty-Seven Inc.
Restoring birds, fish and other natural resources: $30 million
Containment of the contamination: $33 million
Payment for either maintenance of the deposit project or resource restoration: $10 million
Total: $73 million
Paid by Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, other local
governments, CBS Corp., Potlatch Corp. and Simpson Paper Co.
Restoring birds, fish and other natural resources: $33.95 million
Containment of the contamination: $29.39 million
Payment to state for past cleanup costs: $360,000
Total: $63.7 million
Grand total for offshore deposit: $136.7 million
In addition, $8.6 million was paid for past costs from onshore contamination at the Montrose factory.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency