Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

Superfund site of the Week: Palos Verdes Shelf

We're launching a regular feature I'm pretty jazzed about: each week we're going to profile a Superfund site in California. 

Superfund is a more fun way to refer to CERCLA - the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980. In that law, the United States recognized that we have places where we've dumped toxic wastes. And we recognized that it's worth designating them as such, putting them under federal Environmental Protection Agency supervision, and cleaning them up. 

That last part is where it gets tricky. Superfund sites sometimes are superBIG. Or superTOXIC. Or superCOMPLEX…you see where I'm going. If you make a law in 1980, for example, and a company that dumped toxic materials someplace did it during World War II and promptly went out of business, it's hard to get anyone to pay for it. 

And so it is with our first site - one near and dear to my heart. The Palos Verdes Shelf is the largest underwater Superfund site in the US.

In an earlier blog I mostly talked about the fish advisory - what it means to anglers and consumers of fish caught in that area. This time around, I'll focus on the 5 Ws: a cheat sheet to what's happening on the P.V. Shelf. 

  • WHERE: Point Fermin to Palos Verdes Point, somewhat over 9 miles from the southeast point to the northwest. Half a mile to three miles wide. Underwater: mostly on the continental shelf (30+ meters of water above it; that's about 100 feet). Where the shelf drops off, the ocean floor is at 800 meters. 
  • WHAT: DDT and PCBs. DDT is an infamous synthetic pesticide. While you might associate it with all things seventies, by the time it was banned in the US in 1972 it was a century old. DDT can interfere with an animal or a person's hormone system, which can set of a developmental or a neurological or a reproductive problem. And it may act directly on genetic material to mutate them or cause cancer or both. DDT PCB is short for polychlorinated biphenyl; it's a group of chemical compounds that got way popular for a while as coolants for batteries and other things. 
  • WHO: Superfund sites identify "potentially responsible parties." They haven't put that information on the Palos Verdes Shelf site yet. But they frequently reference Montrose Chemical Corporation: who made and marketed the "wonder pesticide" DDT from 20201 Normandie Avenue in what is now Torrance.  
  • WHEN: Montrose Chemical started operating at that site in 1947, officially. After 1972, the market for DDT was outside the US, so Montrose produced less of it, and the largest flows of it into LA sewers were over. Montrose stopped making DDT entirely in 1982. 
  • WHY (as in, WHY CARE): Federal law - along with the Clean Water Act - doesn't just let people drop their chemicals in the ocean anymore. The U.S. now has an inventory for toxics as they're released - and that system isn't perfect, since it's self-reported - but there's more disclosure and tracking. Southern California's tracking less toxic and more pervasive coastal pollution these days: non-point-source runoff from stormwater and roads that contain pathogens we measure by proxy with fecal indicator bacteria. 

And as for the 6th W, WHAT THEY'RE DOING: Working with LA Sanitation to monitor a grid and a cluster of sampling sites. Talking to fishermen to warn them of the risks for eating certain species. "Capping" the part of the site with the highest concentration of the pollutants - which means taking core samples to figure out what kind of sediment the pollution is in, then figuring out what kind of silty sediment that's clean will cover it best. And, to a certain extent, waiting for dilution - the natural solution to pollution. Prognosis: unclear. Completion date: unknown, but probably years. 

More at EPA's Superfund site for Palos Verdes Shelf. Feel free to nominate places you're curious about in the comments. 


(Image via NOAA. The site is roughly in the center-right of the picture, on the Crest-colored underwater shelf.)

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