Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

Your local Superfund site: Palos Verdes Shelf & its fish

This week, we got word of a study from the San Francisco Estuarine Institute finding plenty of what people leave in coastal waters - including mercury and PCBs - in sportfish. 

You might not know that southern California is home to the largest underwater Superfund site in the US - and so a lot of our PCBs and DDT has settled there. So without further ado, just a little background on the Palos Verdes Shelf - the largest underwater Superfund site in the US!

Superfund's a total misnomer, by the by. It's a program run by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up toxic waste at sites around the U.S. - 1200 or so of 'em - but the fund's been, well, underfunded, for quite some time. Still, since CERCLA got made law 31 years ago, the word Superfund has become synonymous with nasty hazardous and toxic waste. 

70 years ago, it was still a fine idea to spew what you didn't want to dump on land from your chemical factory into the ocean. (I mean a fine idea, legally.) Montrose Chemical, opened after the second World War, made a LOT of DDT. The US consumed 80 million pounds of DDT at peak, and Montrose made DDT until 1983. And a LOT of DDT made it into the sewer system. PCB's too: the end of the pipe was in the Pacific. 

People don't have to remember to spit out sea water when they're swimming there. But the chemical pollutants can accumulate in fish eating smaller fish eating microbes and algae. And if you fish off the end of a pier and eat certain fish in certain amounts, daily or weekly, you're risking liver disease, cancer, and a wracked nervous system. 

And maybe you're wondering if anyone is doing anything else about this mess, besides, well, finding it? The EPA has designed a three-pronged approach to address the contamination: capping the most contaminated sediment; monitoring recovery in sediment and fish; and market regulation, public education and outreach.

It's that last part - communicating the whole shebang - that's complicated. The Fish Contamination Education Collaborative is a grant-funded group that's been working with different community groups for people of different backgrounds to figure out who to tell about the toxic chemicals, and what to tell them.

To even make that kind of outreach successful, the state and the federal government had to create an advisory that takes into account 19 kinds of fish, how often people consumed them, and how vulnerable to the chemicals the people eating the fish are. 

The Daily Breeze's Melissa Pamer writes - briefly but clearly - about the complexity of that problem:

The agency, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, issued a complicated new advisory on how often - if at all - 19 kinds of fish caught in local waters should be consumed, with different advice for men, women and children. The advisory would have required a lot of explaining to pier anglers, some of whom fish for subsistence and may speak limited English.

The advice has instead been boiled down to this: from the Santa Monica Pier to Seal Beach Pier, avoid black croaker, barred sand bass, topsmelt and barracuda, in addition to white croaker.

Here's the advisory in its entirety.  It contains 2 maps - one for vulneerable people, women of childbearing age, and kids themselves: 


And one for everyone else: 


The study just out concerned fish samples from 2 years ago from around the state - its function lately has been to develop new and complete consumption guidelines for northern California coastal regions. Three things I found interesting for our area: 

  • About 20 percent of test samples were fish with mercury in high enough concentrations that eating the fish is a bad idea for young, pregnant, or nursing women.
  • Researchers found a lot of PCBs in some fish around San Pedro Bay. 
  • DDT may NOT be as big of a problem as people thought it might be.

On that last one, The OC Register's Pat Brennan talked to Ken Schiff from SCWWRP

Schiff said he was surprised by the findings for DDT, dumped off the Southern California coast decades ago.

"A lot of people worry about DDT," he said. "It turns out DDT really isn't a widespread problem."

Widespread, no, but still a problem, at least, at the shelf site: 

The sediments near Los Angeles have the greatest concentrations of DDTs found in the Southern California Bight (Maruya and Schiff 2009, Schiff 2000). In fact, Palos Verdes in the Los Angeles area is the location of a Superfund site, where up to 100 metric tons of DDTs are still found in offshore sediments (Lee et al. 2002). DDTs are a known persistent bioaccumulative organic contaminant. Food web transfer of DDTs has been well-documented in the Southern California Bight (Young et al. 1976, 1977) and elsewhere (Suedel et al. 1994). In fact, sediment concentrations have been well correlated with tissue levels in sediment-associated fishes (Schiff and Allen 2001). Even pelagic (water column) forage fishes have been shown to contain higher concentrations of DDTs near urban centers in the Southern California Bight (Jarvis et al. 2007).

Based on all this: do you think you know what you're doing out there when you're fishing? I'd be interested to know. 

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