How a shocking environmental disaster was uncovered after 70 years
Just 10 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, an environmental disaster lurked for over 70 years few have ever heard of. So far, this is thanks to research by a University of California marine scientist named David Valentine.
Curiosity, working only on rumors and a hunch, led him 3,000 feet below the surface of the sea. A few hours of research and an autonomous submersible robot discovered what had been hidden since the 1940s: countless barrels of toxic waste that had been mixed with DDT and covered the seabed between Long Beach and Catalina Island.
/ Photo credit: Dr. David Valentine
The fact that his underwater camera immediately spotted dozens of decaying barrels in an otherwise barren, desert-like seabed is evidence that the number of barrels is likely immense. Although the exact number is still unknown, a historical report estimates it could be up to half a million.
After more than 70 years of inactivity, Valentin's research has finally helped initiate a tremendous amount of research to uncover the extent of the contamination.
However, this offshore landfill is only part of the story of environmental damage from years of DDT spills along the Southern California coastline - a story that is unlikely to close for decades due to its ongoing effects, including a recently discovered alarming and unprecedented cancer rate in the state's sea lion population, with one in four adult sea lions plagued by the disease.
The history of DDT dumping
The chemical DDT was invented in 1939 and used as a pesticide during World War II to protect troops from insect-borne diseases such as malaria. After the war, the chemical's production increased and it was routinely used when spraying crops and even over crowded beaches to get rid of pests such as mosquitos.
/ Credit: CBS News
However, in the 1960s, DDT was found to be toxic. Over time, eating DDT fortified foods builds up in the tissues of animals and even humans, leading to harmful side effects. The EPA now calls it a "probable human carcinogen". When the US government began taking pollution seriously with laws like the Clean Air Act in 1972, DDT was banned in the United States.
The largest DDT manufacturer in the United States, Montrose Chemical Corporation, was located on the southern California coast in the city of Torrance. From 1947 to 1982, Montrose manufactured and sold DDT worldwide. A by-product mixture was produced from toxic sludge from petrochemicals, DDT and PCB.
This hazardous waste has been disposed of in two ways for decades. Some of the toxic pollution was drained into storm sewers and the sewer system, which was then pumped into the sea through drainage pipes two miles outside the town of Rancho Palos Verdes.
The remainder of the waste was disposed of in barrels that were loaded onto barges and swum to landfill off Catalina Island 10 to 15 miles offshore and then dumped into the ocean.
/ Credit: CBS News
Although it seems hard to believe, at least some of the dumping was legal. Back then, says Valentine, the prevailing thought was that the oceans were so big that they could never be compromised. The mantra was "Dilution is the solution to pollution" - in retrospect a naive idea.
But while the designated landfill was very deep - in 3,000 feet of water - Valentine says short cuts were taken, with the barrels dumped much closer to the shore. And to make the barrels sink, there is evidence that many were slashed open so that poison could escape when they fell into the ocean.
For decades, the existence of these poisonous barrels was only suspected by a very small group of scientists and regulators. This is despite a surprising report made in the 1980s by a scientist on California's Regional Water Quality Control Board named Allan Chartrand who claimed that up to 500,000 barrels of DDT could be on the ocean floor.
The report was largely ignored. But after nearly 30 years, Valentine wiped it off when he began his quest to see if those barrels existed.
The landfill of toxic waste
In contrast to the deep water dumps, the shallower poison site - called the Palos Verdes Shelf - two miles from the beaches of Rancho Palos Verdes was known and documented. In 1996 this zone was designated a Superfund Cleanup Location by the EPA and now covers an area of 34 square miles. Montrose was sued, and after a lengthy legal battle that ended in late 2000, the companies involved, including Montrose, settled for $ 140 million.
/ Credit: CBS News
For the past two decades, most of the money has been used by a program called the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) to try to restore the contaminated sites. Half of the funds were allocated to the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to clean up the ecosystems affected by the poison.
DDT enters the food chain when it is consumed by tiny marine animals from the contaminated seabed, which are then eaten by small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish and marine mammals such as sea lions. Over time, DDT builds up in the tissues and bacon of marine animals, a process known as bioaccumulation. To this day, signs along the Southern California coast warn fishermen not to eat certain fish. Even so, you cannot get DDT contamination from swimming in the water.
Scientists say contamination at this shallower water location is the most likely route in the food chain that causes DDT to build up in sea lion bacon. That's because there are a lot more marine life in the shallower water. However, this does not rule out contamination from the much deeper point.
To solve these pollution problems, NOAA has used its share of the funds to manage nearly 20 restoration projects off the LA coast, such as kelp forest habitat restoration, support for migratory seabirds, and restoration of 500 acres of critical coastal marsh habitat in Huntington Beach.
The last project of the effort - just completed - was the commissioning of an artificial reef just off the beaches of Rancho Palos Verdes. To achieve this, NOAA hired a team of scientists from the Southern California Marine Science Institute and the Vantuna Research Group at Occidental College to plan and deploy the reef.
Construction of the reef was led by Jonathan Williams, a marine biologist from Occidental College. The project involved the strategic placement of more than 70,000 tons of quarry rock on the ocean floor just in front of the beach. Williams says the reef was an instant hit, with thousands of fish flocking to the rocks.
/ Credit: NOAA Fisheries
This reef site is much closer to the coast than the contamination site which is two miles from land. That is by design. Williams says the idea is to create new habitat for fish and kelp in uncontaminated areas in order to build healthy fish populations. This helps limit the amount of toxins like DDT that get into the food chain.
As predators at the top of the food chain, DDT in fish is also a threat to humans. Williams says this is especially true for underserved communities, who mostly feed fish and eat what they catch. In this way, the NOAA project addresses environmental justice by trying to eat fish more safely.
Two miles offshore, Williams says that after years of measuring high DDT levels on the Palos Verdes Shelf, levels have plummeted, a sign that some DDT may be gradually breaking down.
Discover the barrels
Despite the fact that the poisonous barrels were dumped in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, their existence became common knowledge last fall when the Los Angeles Times published an article on Valentine's work. However, his discovery dates back to 2011 when he first decided to check if the rumors about the barrels were true. In 2013 he made another short trip to the construction site. However, his research wasn't published until March 2019.
In total, his temporary work resulted in a representation of 60 barrels. In addition to bringing back a video of the leaking barrels, his team was able to collect samples from the ocean floor. One of them registered 40 times higher contamination than the highest contamination at the Superfund site, indicating that the toxins are still very concentrated at depth.
Armed with this convincing evidence, Valentine said he had "hit the drum" for years, speaking to various government agencies to spark interest, but to no avail. However, when the LA Times story came out, interest eventually followed as public outcry increased.
I was shocked to learn that a company was allowed to dump thousands of barrels of DDT waste off the California coast decades ago. More worryingly, these barrels of toxic waste have been ignored for so long as they have posed a threat to ocean wildlife and human health. https://t.co/3gf3BvrNCy
- Senator Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein), March 10, 2021
However, prior to its discovery in 2011, Valentine blamed some of the blame for the lack of knowledge about the kegs on the lack of technology to find it. It was only in the last few decades that the technology became available to make this deep water research feasible.
Coincidentally, the day CBS News visited Valentine in Southern California, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography embarked on a two-week mission to survey nearly 50,000 feet of the ocean floor.
/ Credit: Scripps
With a large research vessel called the Sally Ride, 31 scientists and crew members, and two high-tech autonomous robots they call Roombas, the team used sophisticated sonar to map the ocean floor and count the number of barrels.
Scripps researchers aboard the research vessel Sally Ride with the automated underwater vehicles REMUS 600 and Bluefin (AUVs) to examine the seabed for discarded DDT barrels in March 2021. / Credit: Scripps
When we last talked to Eric Terrill, the team leader, the final figure had not yet been determined. But just a week after the exploration mission began, Terrill described the discovery of tens of thousands of targets and said the number of barrels was "overwhelming".
The two-week mission is now complete, but the team is still putting the pieces together. They expect a final report to be published by the end of April.
Sea lions in trouble
Located in close proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California is tasked with rescuing marine mammals in need. Since 1975 the organization has saved 24,000 people.
In December, the team published a 30-year study of sea lions that found an alarming statistic: 25% of adult sea lions have cancer.
CBS News interviewed Senior Vet Dr. Cara Field. She called the number of sea lions suffering from cancer both "extremely alarming" and "unprecedented in the wildlife". Last year the Marine Mammal Center euthanized 29 sea lions for cancer.
/ Credit: NOAA Fisheries
In the report, the research team pointed to a combination of herpes virus and contaminants such as DDT and PCBs as the cause of cancer. In all cases of cancer, sea lions had elevated levels of DDT and PCBs in their bacon. The theory is that the contaminants weaken the body's immune system and make the virus more effective.
With sea lions traveling up and down the California coast each year, scientists believe that they may ingest the pollutants if they are near their breeding site in the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.
And while it seems logical that the sea lion contamination is from polluted locations in shallow water, scientists don't yet know how much DDT can get into the food chain from barrels in deeper water. This will require more research.
Although many questions remain unanswered, one lesson from this history of DDT contamination is clear: If people ruthlessly pollute the environment, it can have consequences for future generations. A current example is man-made climate change. The question is how much burden our children and grandchildren have to bear because of our choices.
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