EPA to cap ocean-floor deposit of DDT

Experiment aims to end pesticide's effects on Calif.

March 26, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans an unprecedented experiment this summer to cover 180 acres of ocean floor off Palos Verdes Peninsula, south of Los Angeles, 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 deep ocean water, 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 chemicals, which are linked to cancer and reproductive problems, still contaminate fish consumed by some Southern Californians and kill bald eagle chicks.

The area -- the Palos Verdes Shelf -- was declared a Superfund environmental cleanup site in 1996. 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 near the area.

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, no place exists 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 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.

"It's unnecessary; it's wasteful. If you do this thing, it's completely ineffective and it's potentially really dangerous."

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