In the early 1980s, a young scientist at the California Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles heard whispers that Montrose once dumped barrels of toxic waste directly into the ocean. People at the time were hyper-focused on the contamination problems posed by poorly treated sewage, but Allan Chartrand was curious about the deep-sea dumping and started poking around.
He called Montrose, and to his surprise, the staff pulled out all their files. He and a team of regulatory scientists combed through volumes of shipping logs, which showed that more than 2,000 barrels of DDT-laced sludge were dumped each month. They did the math: Between 1947 and 1961, as much as 767 tons of DDT could have gone into the ocean.
“We found actual photos of the workers at 2 in the morning dumping — not only dumping barrels off of the barges in the middle of the Santa Monica Basin,” he said, “but before they would dump the barrels, they would take a big ax or hatchet to them, and cut them open on purpose so they would sink.”
On a recent morning, Chartrand rummaged through stacks of yellowing papers and reports detailing everything he had discovered so many decades ago. Now a seasoned eco-toxicologist in Seattle, he never understood why all this information wound up gathering dust — undigitized and largely forgotten.
He pulled out faded reports that his team had published from 1985 to 1989, summarizing what they had found at Montrose and in the water quality control board’s own records. “This makes my heart sing,” he said, as he reread conclusions that still resonate today.
Chartrand said he was astonished to learn this kind of activity was allowed. Federal ocean dumping laws dated back to 1886, but the rules were focused on clearing the way for ship navigation. It wasn’t until the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, that environmental impacts were considered.
Dumping industrial chemicals near Catalina was an accepted practice for decades.
Landfills could hold only so much, and people were concerned about burning toxics into the air — but the Pacific Ocean seemed a good alternative. Explosives, oil refinery waste, trash and rotting meats all went into the ocean, along with beryllium, various acid sludges, even cyanide.
Dilution is the solution to pollution, the saying used to go, but at what cost? The ocean covers more than 70% of the planet, but it can absorb only so much. What we eat, what we breathe is ultimately dictated by what we do to the sea.
“It’s just sad, sad, sad,” Chartrand said. “When stuff’s being dumped offshore like that, it’s in the dead of night, nobody’s seeing it. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”
For years, a company called California Salvage docked at the Port of Los Angeles, loaded up Montrose’s DDT waste and hauled everything out to sea. Workers were instructed to dump in a designated spot, dubbed Dumpsite No. 1, that was about 10 nautical miles northwest of Catalina.
Each container was individually broken before disposal overboard. Drums containing chemicals were emptied and allowed to sink after holes were placed in the top, bottom and sides. — Chartrand et al, March 1985
But compliance inspections were infrequent, and crews sometimes took shortcuts. Chartrand discovered notes from California Salvage indicating they had decided to dump elsewhere because Dumpsite No. 1 was in line of a naval weapons firing range.
The report concluded that these companies likely dumped in closer, much shallower waters.
“Our report caught them red-handed,” Chartrand said. “Here I was this young guy — newly married, just had my first kid, got my new job at the water quality control board — heard about this dumping, went down to Montrose … and it very quickly got so much bigger than me.”
In 1990, a few years after Chartrand compiled his reports, the Environmental Protection Agency teamed up with the state and launched a court battle against Montrose and a number of other companies under the Superfund law. Environmental groups expected the lawsuit — the largest in U.S. history alleging natural resource damages from chemical dumping — to be a landmark case in resolving coastal pollution issues.
Chartrand and dozens of others were pulled in to testify. Science was disputed in court, evidence debated, expertise challenged. In numerous depositions, former factory workers were grilled on how they operated.
Bernard Bratter, a Montrose plant superintendent, described how they would call California Salvage to dump its acid waste in bulk: “The trucks would come in, we’d load the trucks, they would then haul them down to the harbor where they had their barges, and the truck would unload into the barge, and when there was enough liquid in the barge, they’d haul the barge out to the specified area in the ocean and release the acid.”
Montrose officials, who had filed counterclaims, asked the court to exclude the evidence presented on ocean dumping — arguing that such dumping wasn’t relevant.
They said the government’s natural resources damage claim was based solely on the release of DDT through the sewer system to the Palos Verdes shelf, and that attorneys could not prove that Montrose’s disposal of DDT-contaminated waste into the deep ocean actually hurt various bird species.
They also questioned Chartrand’s calculations of how much DDT went into the ocean and made the point that there was nothing secret or illegal about the dumping at the time. The government, they said, allowed this to happen.
In an interoffice correspondence in 1985, Samuel Rotrosen, Montrose’s president at the time, wrote that “it is true that from 1947, when the plant started up, until sometime in the 1950s we disposed of our waste sulfuric acid at sea through California Salvage Company who barged it out to state-approved dumping areas.
“We stopped this disposal after we installed our acid-recovery plant, at which time we sold the acid to fertilizer makers,” he said. “Because our acid contained traces of DDT (50-250 ppm) … the fertilizer producers would no longer take it, and so we disposed of it at landfills.”
As the court battle waged on, a handful of curious scientists kept trying to solve the DDT questions at the bottom of the ocean.
Chartrand did not have a deep-sea robot, but he figured out a way to collect sediment samples and clumps of tar by dragging a large otter trawl net along the seafloor. He also took samples of rattails, kelp bass and other fish from different depths of the ocean.
He called Robert Risebrough, a legend among DDT scientists whose testimonies in the 1960s and early 1970s helped Congress understand why the chemical should be banned. Risebrough, a UC Santa Cruz research ecologist at the time, ran the samples and authored a sweeping study. He confirmed the existence of considerable concentrations of DDT chemicals in both the sediments and the “tar cakes” by the dumpsites.
It was unclear how much the DDT could move through the water at such depths, where there is little oxygen, he said, but the dumping was close enough to the Channel Islands that the upwelling of deeper water common in this area could stir up what enters the food chain.
And if the barrels were indeed punctured, he added, some of the sludge could have leaked out on its way down to the seafloor.
He had a strong suspicion that the disappearance of bald eagles from Catalina was connected to the dumping operations, but he didn’t have the data to confirm it. DDT contamination was also significantly higher in birds that fed on fish, compared with birds that ate mostly rodents and prey on land — another clue that the DDT from the ocean dumping was harming wildlife.
He called for more studies to connect the dots, but Chartrand had run out of funding. Chartrand held on to what he could — even the remaining samples that neither he nor Risebrough could bear to throw away. Some of that deep sea sediment has yet to be tested.
“They’re in a deep freeze now, but because it’s DDT, even though it’s been 30, 40 years, they’re still valid,” Chartrand said. “If we could get the funding, those are still worth running.”
“They were supposed to take it out to sea. I think beyond the Continental Shelf. But there was a common joke among people that they only took it as far as they needed to, just out of sight, and started dumping right there.” — Deposition of Ferdinand Suhrer, Montrose employee, July 30, 1996
M. Indira Venkatesan, a geochemist at UCLA who studied how chemicals moved through the sea, had taken one of these samples in the early 1990s and run her own analyses. She, too, concluded there must be a DDT source in the ocean much larger than just what had come out of the sewage closer to shore.
She collected additional sediment cores from the seafloor by a manual pulley that her technicians and graduate students spent hours pulling up. Her team distinguished the DDT “fingerprint” for Montrose’s ocean-dumped waste and discussed the upward and downward diffusion of DDT in the sediments.
“It gets resuspended and remobilized. That’s why you see it all over the basin,” she said. “I knew, I just knew, this DDT source was significant, just from the chemical analysis, but we couldn’t show the extent of the dumping, nor the number of barrels.”
Back in court, the arguments were focusing on the more tangible: the hundreds of tons of DDT and PCBs, another toxic chemical, that had been released two miles off the coast of Palos Verdes where the sewage emptied into the ocean. Many saw the need to make this public health problem — much closer to shore, with visible harm to humans and the ecosystem — a top priority.
The site — spread across more than 17 square miles — was declared a Superfund cleanup in 1996. About 200 feet deep, it was considered one of the most complicated hazard sites in the United States — at least three times deeper than similar Superfund sites in Boston and New York harbors.
By late 2000, the parties decided to settle. They negotiated a consent decree midway through trial — no sides admitting fault, with an agreement that more than $140 million would be paid by Montrose, several other companies that owned or operated a share of the plant, and local governments led by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.
The settlement — one of the largest in the nation for an environmental damage claim — would pay for cleanup, habitat restoration and education programs for people at risk of eating contaminated fish.
“This Decree was negotiated … in good faith at arm’s length to avoid the continuation of expensive and protracted litigation and is a fair and equitable settlement of claims which were vigorously contested,” according to the decree, which mentioned that the damage claim includes “any ocean dumpsites used for disposing of wastes from the Montrose Plant Property.”
Attorneys representing Montrose, when contacted by The Times, declined to comment on the new underwater data and noted that the ocean claims related to the DDT operation were resolved 20 years ago. Litigation continues to this day over other impacts from the former plant. In August, a $56.6-million settlement was finally reached over groundwater contamination.
Back at UCLA, on a recent morning in the geology building, Venkatesan thought ruefully back to those DDT years. KCBS had run a local news series on the barrels, and The Times followed the story for a brief period.
The information caught the attention of Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), the 1960s activist turned lawmaker who married Jane Fonda and was remembered as “the radical inside the system.” For a few years, he pushed for more information about the barrels and an action plan, but so many unchecked environmental problems demanded attention back then.
Even Venkatesan got pulled away. As public concerns shifted from water to air pollution, her research focus changed to aerosols.
She had tried for a while longer to get the word out — giving public lectures in Santa Monica bookstores and telling whoever would listen that the deep ocean also needed healing.
“I didn’t know what to do with this data; I felt bad,” she said. “As scientists, we thought we could leave it to the politicians and the government to do their job…. But if the government is not proactive, then people don’t care. If people don’t care, then the government doesn’t do anything.”
Now that she’s retired, her filing cabinets — filled with her work since she started in 1975 — have been moved into a basement at UCLA. She recently reviewed the data that the UC Santa Barbara researchers had uncovered with deep-sea robots, which validated Chartrand’s estimates, as well as her own.
She held out her hands and said she was trembling with excitement, knowing that people might care about this issue again.
“Disposing any waste, where you don’t see and forget about it, does not solve the problem,” she said. “The problem eventually comes back to haunt us.”