EPA Will Try to Cap DDT Layer Off Palos Verdes


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans an unprecedented experiment this summer to cover 180 acres of ocean floor off Palos Verdes Peninsula, a potentially risky effort to deal with the world’s largest deposit of the pesticide DDT.

The pilot project, in which tons of sand will be dropped into water as deep as 200 feet, is the first tangible step toward resolving a decades-old problem that haunts Southern California’s marine environment.

For 25 years, through 1971, chemical manufacturer Montrose Corp. dumped residue into the Los Angeles County sewer system, allowing 110 tons of DDT to spread across 17 square miles of the ocean floor. The chemical, which is linked to cancer and reproductive problems, is still contaminating fish consumed by some Southern Californians and killing bald eagle chicks.


The area--the Palos Verdes Shelf--was declared a Superfund environmental cleanup site in 1996, and on Wednesday, the EPA will announce its initial plan for protecting people and wildlife from the underwater contamination.

In addition to the $5-million sand-capping experiment, the EPA is proposing to spend $22 million to enforce a no-fishing zone around the deposit and increase efforts to warn consumers to avoid eating white croaker caught off Palos Verdes.

During a two-month period, the EPA plans to drop about 50,000 dump-truck loads of sand and silt two miles offshore, on four small sections of ocean floor near sewer outfall pipes.

If the test succeeds, the EPA intends to spend about $100 million more to seal much of the Palos Verdes Shelf--three or four square miles--beginning in 2002.

Never before have environmental officials tried to place a layer, called a “cap,” on a hazardous waste deposit in such deep water or on such a sloped ocean bottom. Digging up the deposit would be too risky and expensive. Even if it were safely dredged up, there would be no place to dispose of so much toxic waste.

“The levels of DDT are simply not acceptable for a recreational area that is so highly used and valued,” said Michael Montgomery, the EPA’s chief of Superfund cleanup in California and Arizona. “Capping it is the lone technology we have that has a high possibility of working and having a great benefit. If we can’t cap it, there might not be anything we can do.”


The companies held responsible for the pollution say the cap will be ineffective at best and at worst could stir up the DDT and unleash even more contamination. They argue that the best option is leaving the deposit alone, allowing it to slowly degrade and be buried by natural forces.

“They’re nuts to do this,” said Karl Lytz, a San Francisco attorney representing the now-defunct Montrose Corp., which manufactured DDT in a plant near Torrance. “It’s unnecessary; it’s wasteful. If you do this thing, it’s completely ineffective and it’s potentially really dangerous.”

Many scientists involved in marine research are skeptical about the capping project and say the EPA should undertake a rigorous scientific review first.

Issues include whether the sand layer can effectively control the DDT and resist erosion and earthquakes. Scientists also question whether the risk to human and marine life is great enough to warrant the expenditure and whether sensitive resources, including kelp beds less than a mile away, would be harmed.

“These are complex issues that require an independent peer review of EPA action, and EPA has not yet undertaken that review,” said Steve Weisberg, director of the Southern California Water Research Project, a scientific group largely funded by the EPA that has researched the contaminated site. Weisberg stopped participating in the EPA’s technical review committee for the project because he felt the process was dominated by lawyers rather than science.

Tony Michaels, director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, is also skeptical. “It’s a real question whether this is worth doing,” he said. “Capping isn’t a real solution.

“It puts a barrier between the DDT and the rest of the world, but the DDT is still there, despite spending all that money,” Michaels added. “My gut feeling is that I would be skeptical that it will work. Doing nothing is not an acceptable solution either.”

Experiment Expected to Answer Questions

EPA officials acknowledge the uncertainties but say it is time to head out to sea and experiment.

“A lot of the questions people have will be answered with this pilot project,” said Keith Takata, regional chief of the EPA’s Superfund program.

Mark Gold, executive director of the environmental group Heal the Bay, said the pilot project is a great idea and is small enough that he has no concerns about it causing ecological harm. If the experiment proves successful, a proposal for a far larger cap is expected to be unveiled by year’s end.

A long, acrimonious legal battle has been waged over the contamination, and the capping project is likely to become a new focal point.

For 10 years, Montrose, Chris-Craft Industries and four other companies have fought a federal and state lawsuit seeking about $170 million in damages for the cleanup and restoration of wildlife off Palos Verdes. Another $67 million in settlements has already been paid by 150 Southern California municipalities that used the sewer system and three companies: Simpson Paper Co., Potlatch Corp. and CBS Corp.

The Palos Verdes Shelf lawsuit is the largest natural-resource damage case in the nation, previously exceeded in scope only by the Exxon Valdez case in Alaska. A federal district judge in Los Angeles, newly assigned to the case, recently put it on a fast track by ordering a trial to begin in October.

In the meantime, the EPA plans to undertake its pilot project, hauling as much as half a million cubic yards of sand and silt out to sea.

The sediment will come from a channel just outside Long Beach Harbor where a massive dredging project is beginning in May to deepen the port’s main entrance. The EPA has quickened the pace of its own project to make use of port sediment, which tests show is relatively uncontaminated.

“It’s good, clean stuff,” said Robert Kanter, the Port of Long Beach’s director of planning and environmental affairs. “It’s from outside the harbor, outside the breakwater, and that area is quite clean.”

In late summer, a small ship called a dredger will drop the sand on four 45-acre plots off White’s Point, northeast of the outfall pipeline where Los Angeles County discharges its sewage.

The four plots will be covered with layers of different thicknesses, varying from 6 to 18 inches, and assorted types of sand to determine what cover works best. The thinner the cap, the lower the cost but the greater the risk of erosion.

Capping of underwater toxic waste has been proved to work well at dozens of Superfund sites throughout the nation in recent years. But most have been in shallow rivers or harbors, not the open ocean. The only other deep-ocean project has been off New York Harbor, where a cap was placed a few years ago at 40- to 70-foot depths, considerably shallower than the Palos Verdes Shelf, which drops down to 200 feet.

An Illinois dredging company, NATCO Limited Partnership, will perform the work. The company worked on the New York cap, as well as other large EPA Superfund projects.

William Pagendarm, NATCO’s vice president and general manager, said he expects little disruption of the DDT because the dredged sand will be fine particles.

“We dump material in ocean disposal sites all over the country. I don’t anticipate it’s going to disturb what’s down there,” Pagendarm said. “You’ve got material that drops out of the bottom of the dredge as particles and it more or less gently drifts to the bottom of the ocean.”

The critical issue is whether contamination turns up when the EPA monitors the water during the dumping.

“Disturbing the [DDT] site is a concern, but ultimately we think we can find a placement method that will cause minimum disruption,” the EPA’s Montgomery said.

The NATCO team will try dropping the sand at various rates, from dumping the equivalent of 100 truckloads in a few minutes to letting it trickle out over half an hour.

“If you drop a massive amount, with a huge ‘kerplop,’ it could push some of [the contamination] into the water column. But I think they could find a speed to lay it down without remobilizing the DDT,” said Linda Duguay, director of USC’s Sea Grant program for ocean research.

Rate of DDT Decay a Matter for Debate

Government officials estimate that Montrose discharged 1,800 tons of DDT into the ocean off Palos Verdes--more than the volume of DDT that has flowed into the entire Mississippi River, Montgomery said.

Scientists agree the DDT is being broken down naturally by microbes and being buried under sediment. But the rate of decay is a subject of considerable debate.

John List, a retired Caltech environmental engineer hired by Montrose, says the natural decay is rapid, with half the DDT apparently disappearing every 16 to 26 years. EPA officials, however, say it would take many decades for the deposit to naturally reach a non-hazardous concentration.

On the other hand, the federal government does not know how much contamination it would prevent with the cap. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data show that even a large cap would prevent only 2 pounds of DDT a year from seeping into the water. But EPA officials say that calculation does not include the substantial amounts of DDT getting into the food chain through worms and other burrowing creatures.

DDT, banned in the United States since 1972, was widely used and touted as safe for killing mosquitoes and other pests until scientists discovered that it accumulated in the fat of fish and consequently, in animals and humans.

DDT in birds affects eggshells, making them so thin that chicks die. Brown pelicans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other species nearly vanished across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, with the effects especially severe off Southern California.

Today, bald eagles nesting on Santa Catalina Island still cannot lay eggs without human intervention because DDT lingers in their bodies from eating contaminated fish. Seals, dolphins and other marine mammals off Southern California also still contain high levels. And the pesticide is a sex hormone-altering substance that can affect fish, birds and other animals.

The White’s Point deposit also contains PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, another substance that accumulates in marine life.

In humans, DDT and PCBs can cause cancer as well as reproductive problems, neurological damage and immune suppression. Breast-fed infants are at particular risk.

Commercial fishing of white croaker, a bottom-dwelling fish, is banned around the deposit, but illegal fishing is believed to be commonplace. Also, people routinely ignore warning signs and fish off Cabrillo Pier.

The EPA says that one of every 1,000 people who eat four or five meals of white croaker a month would contract cancer from the contamination. “That’s a phenomenally high number,” the EPA’s Takata said.

The fish is especially popular among Asian Americans. Heal the Bay tested white croaker sold in some Asian markets and found high DDT concentrations.

To police an 11-year fishing ban around the deposit, the EPA is proposing to fund a large-scale enforcement program including the hiring of 16 game wardens and six office employees at the California Department of Fish and Game.

Only $430,000 of the $22-million proposal is aimed at public education and outreach, mainly targeted toward Asian American communities.

Some environmentalists say more money should be spent on educating consumers and less on enforcement. Education is a tough task, said Inbo Sim of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles, because croaker is popular, especially among Korean Americans, who consider it a delicacy.

The EPA will seek public comment on its plan through April. Four information meetings will be held, beginning April 11 at 7 p.m. at Cal State Long Beach’s Peterson Hall.


DDT Capping Project

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to cover a small portion of the ocean floor off Palos Verdes Peninsula with sand in an experiment to see if a large underwater deposit of DDT can be sealed. Four small plots will be capped.