At a hearing led by California Senator Diane Feinstein, marine scientists revealed that a massive DDT dumping site off the coast of Los Angeles is even bigger than anyone had previously thought—containing as many as half a million barrels of the deadly, illegal pesticide. Feinstein says she plans to ask the Department of Justice to find out which companies are behind the potential environmental disaster, and to hold them accountable.
Lawmakers gathered to hear findings from a mission of 31 scientists and crew members aboard the research vessel Sally Ride, which mapped portions of the waste site located in the waters near Santa Catalina Island. The barrels, which were likely discarded there decades ago, are located about 3,000 feet deep. The Sally Ride team employed deep-sea robots and sonar imagery to attempt to document the extent of the dumping, the Los Angeles Times reports.
“I was pretty shocked that it just kept extending as far as it did,” said team leader Eric Terrill of UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We couldn’t keep up with the flow of data coming in.”
The footprint of the DDT dumping site is larger than the entire city of San Francisco, and although the expedition was able to identify at least 27,000 barrel-sized anomalies and a total of 100,000 pieces of debris sprawled across the seafloor over the course of two weeks, they said they could have searched further in any direction and found more. Untold numbers of additional barrels are believed to be half-buried in sediment, and thus likely undetected by equipment.
“This mission confirms my worst fear: that possibly hundreds of thousands of barrels and DDT-laced sediment were dumped just 12 miles off our coast,” Feinstein said. “I’m pleased the Biden administration shares my concern about this issue and took action quickly. It’s critical that this momentum continues. We need everyone to come to the table with all the resources necessary to solve a problem of this size.”
Although DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, the crystalline structure is so stable that it continues to poison the environment to this day. Traces of DDT-related compounds have been found in Southern California dolphins and the waste has been linked to cancer in sea lions.
UC Santa Barbara scientist David Valentine says the new data is encouraging in that it’s providing “hot lines,” or chemical trails that may reveal the course taken by vessels as they dumped the toxin, showing researchers where to expand their investigations. What is not encouraging is that the scope of the problem could still be even worse than anyone suspects.
“Right now, we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he told the Times. “The Southern California offshore dumping industry clearly got away with dumping wherever they wanted, and that really makes me wonder: What else did they get away with?”
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