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New Expedition Provides More Information On Massive Ocean Toxic Waste Dumping Discovered By South Coast Researcher

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Schmidt Ocean Institute photo
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Samples being collected from the ocean floor near what's believed to be one of thousands of DDT barrels dumped in the ocean between Los Angeles and Catalina.

It's the first new undersea study of the DDT dumping problem in a decade.

An underwater expedition off of Southern California has provided some of the first new information in more than a decade about a massive undersea toxic waste spill first discovered by a UC Santa Barbara researcher.

From the 1940s through the early 1980s, thousands and possibly even hundreds of thousands of barrels of DDT were dumped in the ocean between Los Angeles and Catalina. UCSB researcher David Valentine documents some of the dumping and actually discovered some of the barrels during a research project in the area.

Now, a new 12-day expedition off the coast has helped us learn more about the situation.

Dr. Lisa Levin was part of the team on board the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor. The expedition included scientists from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the U.S. Geological Survey. "We certainly saw a lot of barrels down there," said Levin. "They were in different states of degradation."

But, the researcher says the 5,300 miles covered by the expedition isn't nearly enough to give a good estimate of the scope of the problem.

The project had several objectives, including assessing the biodiversity of areas which could potentially be deep sea mineral mining sites. The project included 13 dives with remote submersible vehicles at nine sites. Dr. Levin says one of the goals was to help us learn more about the DDT issue.

DDT was a powerful and effective pesticide developed in the 1940s that was put into widespread use. But, it was banned in the 1970s after it was found to be a cancer-causing agent. For decades it was actually legal, with proper permits, to dump chemicals in the ocean if it was done far enough offshore.

Dr. Paul Jensen is a marine biologist with Scripps. He says while they now have samples as a result of the expedition, they still need to get funding to do the DDT related research.

The researcher thinks that a complete study might bring some good news. Jensen feels that over time, microbes have helped break down many of the toxins.

Researchers admit there’s still a lot we don’t know about the DDT issue. Given the size of the area involved, and the impacts of time, we may never know its full scope. And, even if we had a better picture, there’s the question of how feasible it would be to recover, and remove thousands of deteriorating barrels resting hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface.