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South Coast Researcher Discovers Huge Undersea Toxic Waste Site Off Southern California Coastline

(Photo courtesy David Valentine, UC Santa Barbara / ROV Jason)
A drum filled with toxic waste on the ocean floor between Long Beach and Catalina. It's believed there could be hundreds of thousands of similar barrels in the region, some dating back to the 1940's.

There could be thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of barrels of toxic waste dumped in along the Southern California coast.

A South Coast researcher has discovered a major environmental crisis that’s been hidden for decades, under the surface of the ocean.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of barrels of discarded toxic waste on the ocean floor between Long Beach, and Catalina.

Dr. David Valentine is a Professor of Geochemistry and Microbiology at UC Santa Barbara. His research focuses on the interaction of microbes and chemicals. A decade ago, he was researching underwater seeps in the area. As he was doing research for the project, he stumbled across something interesting, but also very alarming. He found documents showing there might be a toxic waste some 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface off the Southern California coastline, and that it could be loaded with DDT.

DDT was a powerful pesticide developed in the 1940’s, which was put into widespread use. But, over time it was discovered that the chemical was not only long lasting, it could cause cancer in humans.

Montrose Chemical was the largest DDT maker in the United States. Before it went out of businesses in the 1980’s, it dumped tons of the dangerous chemical into LA’s sewer system, ultimately ending up in the ocean. But, it, and other chemical companies dumped barrels of toxic wastes in the ocean. Incredibly, for years it was legal to do that, if you had permits.

The toxic dumpsite about ten miles off of Long Beach, some 3,000 feet deep, was forgotten. But, after Valentine found the documents, he took some spare time during his other research project in the area to use an autonomous mini-sub to see if it could find one of the waste sites.

Valentine says they did other exploratory missions using the autonomous craft, as well as a tethered, remote control sub capable of sending up live video, and taking samples. They discovered dozens of barrels, and signs there might be hundreds, if not thousands more. But documents show there could be hundreds of thousands of barrels of DDT, and other toxic wastes in the area.

Here’s how bad it might be. The federal government already has a designated DDT Superfund cleanup site off the Palos Verdes peninsula. The UCSB researcher says their exploration on the ocean floor detected DDT levels 40 times more than at the Superfund site.

Valentine says we are seeing impacts on marine life, although the research has been very limited. He says there are known issues with fish in the area, and he says there’s also been a huge spike in cancer among sea lions.

The UCSB researcher says we know there is a toxic waste problem, but the next thing which has to happen is to try to determine its size.

Part of that first key step has been underway this year. Valentine says the Scripps Institute of Oceanography has been doing a mapping project this spring which may give us a better handle on the crisis. The goal was to map 150 square kilometers of the ocean.

Valentine says time, and nature may be helping to break down some of the toxic pollutants, but an accurate assessment of the problem’s size can set the stage for decisions about things like the feasibility of cleanup projects.