Almost 40 years after pesticide spilled into the Palos Verdes peninsula, federal and state officials are still getting a handle on how that toxic waste harms marine life - and people who fish for it.
KPCC’s Molly Peterson reports on plans to address a decades-old mess.
Molly Peterson: A swath of sea floor from Point Vicente to Point Fermin holds the world’s largest deposit of the pesticide DDT. The Environmental Protection Agency ranks it as one of the most hazardous Superfund sites in the country. It’s the job of the EPA’s Carmen White to manage it.
Carmen White: EPA’s policy in Superfund is polluter pays, if you can find the polluter, if you can take them to court.
Peterson: Polluters did pay $145 million after a drawn-out legal battle. Cleanup is complex, too – you can’t just pick up toxic chemicals settled into sand that’s 200 feet below the ocean surface. EPA wants to dump 18 inches of new sediment on top of the polluted stuff. White says the agency has tested the method.
White: We tried placing a sandy, silty cap over three areas on the shelf. Now, we were going to try different techniques. But as it turned out, the vast majority were point dumps. You take a hopper dredge, open it up and let the sand fall to the bottom.
Peterson: But, the test capping didn’t cut concentrations of pollution much. Carmen White calls those results:
White: Mixed. There’s a one word... (laughs) There were many questions on why this would be. We still aren’t sure what the answer is.
Peterson: Since no cleanup can be absolute, EPA must keep monitoring the toxic waste for decades. DDT has tainted and weakened eggshells of bald eagles, almost wiping them out. And White says chemicals accumulate in fish that people eat, raising risks for cancer.
White: As it turns out, PCBs are the health risk, the driver for human health. PCBs are known to be a developmental hazard so that women of childbearing age or young children shouldn’t be eating fish that contain PCBs.
Connie Kwok: The people – they eat a lot of fish. Daily, they eat all kinds of fish.
Peterson: Connie Kwok of the Chinese Christian Herald Center gets federal and state money to show Chinese anglers and consumers the health risks from fish caught off the coast. It’s hard work – immigration turns the population over; there’s a language barrier; most of all, she says, Asians prepare more fish more often.
Kwok: They eat the whole fish. They eat the bone, the head, the skin. So I think it’s very good to communicate about those kind of information.
Peterson: The state’s just come out with new guidelines for fish caught in Southern California. Those guidelines assume people cut the fatty parts and the skin off. Susan Klasing is a toxicologist for the state’s office of environmental health hazard assessment. She says eating only fillets is safer.
Susan Klasing: There was a small pilot study done. Two halves of the same fish were tested – one half with the skin on, the other half with the skin off. The PCB levels in the two species that were tested were anywhere from 3 to 11 times higher if the skin was left on than if the skin was left off.
Peterson: Klasing analyzed fish data the EPA and local agencies collected. At public meetings, she’s been advising caution in eating for fish caught between Ventura and Dana Point.
Klasing: And then this area in between, from south west Santa Monica Pier to Seal Beach Pier, we’re calling the “red zone.”
Peterson: The red zone is roughly where the toxic waste resides in the EPA’s Superfund site. Three species pose the most risk there.
Klasing: These fish were different. The topsmelt, the sand bass, and the white croaker, those were found to have substantially higher concentrations of PCBs in that red zone. So we’re telling people not to eat any in that red zone.
Peterson: On top of that, the state says women of childbearing age and children have to restrict the local fish they eat even further. And nobody should eat local halibut more than twice a week. New warnings are wider. That’s got Heal the Bay’s James Alamillo worried.
James Alamillo: To put the onus on the consumer to figure out which route they’re going to take in terms of which fish they’re consuming, which fish is problematic, which fish to eat skin, which fish not to eat skin, does the fish then become a “do not consume,” is asking a lot.
Peterson: Alamillo says the state’s advice is so complicated, and the problem’s so persistent, maybe the EPA should close the Palos Verdes shelf to fishing entirely. EPA’s not considering that. But it does want people to comment on its plan to cap the pollution through next month.