Now-banned pesticide discovered in barrels off Catalina Island is a ‘problem we still don’t understand,’ scientist says

A Los Angeles Times investigation last fall showing as many as half a million barrels of a now-banned pesticide may be sitting on the ocean floor off Catalina Island has led a local assemblyman to propose a new resolution calling on the federal government to take action to protect the island’s ecosystem.

The resolution, AJR 2, authored by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, does not specify what action exactly should be taken regarding the toxic waste, nor is any specific funding attached.

The chemical DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, has long been known as a cause of a host of environmental problems: sea lions have contracted an aggressive cancer, brown pelicans’ and California condors’ eggshells have thinned, and a significant accumulation of the chemical has been found in bottlenose dolphins.

The chemical, banned in 1972, was thought to be contained to shallow waters off Palos Verdes. But the Times investigation, based on the work of a UC Santa Barbara scientist, reported DDT contamination in sediment near Catalina to be 40 times greater than that initial area, which was designated a Superfund site.

“There’s a lot that we still don’t understand,”  UC Santa Barbara scientist David Valentine said in a recent interview. “We really need to wrap our head around how much is there, and what is it. We don’t know the magnitude of the problem yet.”

A map of the DDT dumpsite in the Pacific Ocean near Catalina Island. Graphic by Dennis Dean.

Valentine has so far identified 60 barrels of leaking sludge from DDT, which was manufactured by a Los Angeles company. The Palos Verdes site was identified decades ago as a hotspot for the chemical because the company disposed of DDT byproduct through sewage pipes that led to the ocean.

But the barrels of the chemical that were hauled out to sea and disposed of was a new discovery that may have contributed to the long-lasting effects of the chemical, according to Valentine’s research.

“In order to be proper stewards of our natural resources, we must wrestle with the mistakes of the past and address the damage before it gets worse,” said O’Donnell during a May 3 California State Assembly presentation.

First introduced in December, the resolution calling for action by the federal government passed the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee on April 21, before heading to the Assembly Floor for a full vote.

According to Valentine, there is still uncertainty regarding how the material transports itself and the extent to which it attaches to animal tissue. Once these issues are addressed, Valentine said the next step would be determining an appropriate course of action.

Valentine said that lack of knowledge may be partially to blame for the government’s inaction, “But this problem falls between a lot of cracks. There’s no single entity charged with dealing with this thing.”

However, Valentine said that he thinks elected officials intend to address the issue.

On April 26, Sen. Diane Feinstein announced that the DDT around Catalina Island was a public health hazard, potentially propelling action forward.

“That was very refreshing to hear, and I hope that that’s enough to generate real action,” Valentine said.

Research has since built upon Valentine’s findings: scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego recently discovered over 27,000  “barrel-like” objects in the San Pedro basin, which although not tested yet, are suspected to contain DDT.

Over 90% of the surveyed area (which was roughly double the size of Manhattan, for reference) contained these barrels.

“We were very surprised at the extent of them,” said Erik Terrill, director of the marine physical lab at Scripps, during a media conference on April 26. ”Looking at the historical records, all of this has occurred for decades on a monthly basis, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us. But it was still just not anything I had really wrapped my head around in terms of envisioning what we might actually find.”

“It’s just shocking that this was considered OK,” said Lihini Aluwihare, professor of the geoscience research division at Scripps.

As for possible ways to better protect the marine life that has been exposed to DDT, Aluwihare said it’s not that simple.

Aluwihare said there could be a possibility that these organisms, based on their high intake of DDT, or have adapted to have some sort of detoxification mechanism due to their long-term exposure.

“I think a lot of people want to know, can we protect these organisms? But it’s a little bit different from something like the Gulf Oil Spill where it’s happening right now and you’re trying to figure out what to do with these organisms. These populations have been exposed to this issue for decades. And I think it’s an interesting question, what the long term impacts are but also what the resilience is in these populations as a result,” said Aluwihare.

A lot remains unknown, said Eunha Hoh, professor and division head of environmental health at San Diego State University. She said that while research indicated high quantities of DDT, it was unclear how much of this could be traced to the barrels.

There is also the issue of funding. According to Hoh, the Environmental Protection Agency has had “limited or diminished” funding over the years, with not enough to “support the research and environmental investigation,” but she hopes the situation will improve.

Although O’Donnell’s legislation may provide hope to some, skepticism surrounds the resolution’s effectiveness.

Peter Sharpe and Linda Chilton, co-chairs with the Los Angeles MPA Collaborative, which focuses on building ocean resilience and protecting marine life, have expressed concern that the removal of the waste will re-suspend the DDT in the water column, aggravating all of the negative consequences of DDT.

“I really doubt they would be able to do much to clean up the site in 3,000 feet of water without distributing the pollutants over a larger area,” said Sharpe in an email.

Due to these concerns, the resolution does not specifically call for removal of the waste, but instead remains neutral on what specific action should be taken as further information is gathered.

I think that this is yet another reminder of the dangers of how our society treats the environment and our waste. Somebody thought that was OK, so it’s a reminder that we have to do better,” said Valentine.

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