A superfund site in Seattle. (William Yardley / Los Angeles Times)
Mission Vista High School

Superfund Series: The Montrose chemical corporation’s decades-long pollution

Palos Verdes is known for its rolling hills and ocean views. Although near Los Angeles, the peninsula is a break from the usual urban environment, providing those fortunate enough to reside there a more natural and luxurious environment.

Not many who look over the ocean from the cliffside views, however, know about the danger that lies beneath the waves. According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 110 million tons of DDT — an industrial chemical classified as a carcinogen and a risk to reproductive health — contaminate the surface sediment of the Palos Verdes Shelf.

Most of this contamination has occurred due to discharges and pollution by industrial oversights in the past century. What’s worse, DDT can accumulate in animal tissue, meaning many fish and other aquatic creatures are harmed, as well as unsafe for human consumption.

So, where exactly did the DDT come from?

The EPA also says that from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, over 1700 tons of DDT were discharged into the ocean by the Montrose Chemical Corporation.

The Montrose Chemical Corporation was the largest producer of the insecticide DDT, and it operated from 1947 to 1982. Until they were rendered defunct after the effects of DDT on the environment were revealed, they were guilty of many practices that contributed to mass pollution of the ocean off the coast of California, including the discharge of DDT through the city’s sewer system and the disposal of punctured barrels of DDT into deep water as is illustrated by a document written by the California Regional Water Control Board.

The DDT manufacturing company — or rather, what’s left of it — helps illustrate a larger issue across the United States. 

The site of the Montrose Chemical Corporation, as well as the DDT contaminated sediment on the Palos Verdes Shelf, are classified as Superfund Sites. Superfund Sites are designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as areas with heavy chemical and/or industrial contamination.

According to the EPA website, the Superfund created a tax on chemical and petroleum industries. It also provided “broad federal authority” to respond to the release of hazardous substances that may put public health or the environment in danger. 

A factsheet published by the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that there are around 1,303 superfund sites across the United States and that around 50 million Americans live next to or near one.

Unfortunately, the general public is not aware of these dangers. Many superfund sites are located just near a recreational park or a school, where families and students may be exposed to the harmful effects of various substances.

People must be at least aware of these areas. As with the Palos Verdes Shelf, the DDT contamination from decades ago still affects our environment and health today.

Although superfund sites are a phenomenon to worry about, there is some good news. These sites were created for restoration; and thus, some progress has been made to minimize the environmental and health risks that these areas pose.

In a 2018 yearly report by the EPA, 412 sites were removed from the website, most likely due to the sufficient restoration of those sites.

As this turbulent year comes to a close, it is important to remember that certain problems that have remained at large for a while, such as superfund sites, should not be forgotten.