The Toxic and Insidious Legacy and Crime of DDT Dumping in Southern California

Corroded barrel of DDT waste 3,000 feet deep in the waters not far from the Los Angeles harbor. There are thousands of barrels of DDT waste spread widely in the ocean floor of Southern California. The dumping took place from 1947 to 1982. Courtesy David Valentine, University of California, Santa Barbara.

The chemical industry, factories and companies of industrial production, and the military have been dumping wastes in landfills and the seas for more than a century.

DDT history

DDT, a synthetic chemical invented in 1874 and put to use against malaria mosquitoes in World War II, is a mirror of insidious toxicity and dumping of wastes.

The US Army doused troops with DDT. American farmers made it magical. They claimed they could not farm without it. They used it in huge amounts to wipe out pesty insects. Such illiterate practices killed millions of birds by outright poisoning and by the inability of the birds eating poisoned insects to reproduce themselves. But the farmers did not care. They had a free hand with DDT from the 1940s to 1972 when the newly founded US Environmental Protection Agency banned it to protect humans from its carcer touch.

DDT is almost immortal. It lasts for decades in the environment. It transforms itself into other chemicals. Some of it is carcinogenic, like the isomer DDE. Some not. I remember conversations I had about DDT with my EPA colleagues, which still astonish me.

When EPA made DDT illegal, in 1972, pesticide merchants used DDT in the making of new compounds. They dubbed the DDT parts of these new chemicals “inerts” in order to mislead the government and the user, telling them those inerts were harmless. Indeed, all pesticides include toxic and untested ingredients branded inerts.

The politics of dumping DDT

Industrialized farmers, agribusiness, and landscapers in the United States used so much DDT that wastes from DDT production contaminated land and waters. The dumping of DDT was especially egregious and dangerous in Southern California.

The dumping of DDT started in the 1930s, four decades before the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. But the case of illegalities with the disposal of this product, so much adopted by farmers, would not be an easy one to any state and national authority.

Certainly the US Department of Agriculture, which “regulated” pesticides before the coming into being of the EPA, loved pesticides. It embraced the DDT magic bullet. So, when EPA opened shop in Washington, DC, in December 1970, DDT was not in its immediate radar. Yet the Agency learned fast and, in less than two years, abolished DDT.

Banning DDT almost wrecked EPA. A torrent of abuse and lies from farmers, industry, and politicians put a brake to moving forward in environmental protection. EPA started playing the games of the industry, telling Americans to be cautious with pollution but regulating the industry way.

Oleum / SOO sludge

So, despite the dumping of DDT even after 1970, EPA stood on the sidelines. Silently, it collected information in thousands of pages and waited for the political moment to talk. That opportunity came with President Joe Biden and the discovery of DDT barrels near Catalina Island in 2021 by Professor David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

EPA spoke about DDT dumping in Southern California on April 5, 2021. An EPA memorandum explained how the DDT company Montrose got rid of its DDT wastes. Montrose was the largest DDT producer in the United States. Starting in 1948, Montrose hired California Salvage Company to do the dumping. The EPA memo said that the Salvage Company did the following:

“[It would send] a tanker truck to the Torrance facility, which would pump about 3,000 gallons of spent filtrate acid (aka, oleum, or “SOO”) sludge per trip from the facility’s waste storage tank into the tanker truck. This acid waste contained some DDT. California Salvage would then drive the trucks to the [Los Angeles] harbor and unload the waste onto a barge. The barges would be towed to an ‘approved’ location offshore and dispose of the acid waste directly into the ocean waters (though… rumors [had it] that California Salvage would sometimes dump the waste closer to shore). This process continued until the early 1960’s, at which point depositions indicate that Montrose built an acid recovery plant at the Torrance facility, and the company appears to have stopped using a contractor to arrange for the ocean dumping of Montrose’s waste acid from its DDT Plant.”

The Montrose company also discharged its untreated DDT waste directly into the sewers of the Los Angeles County. Eventually the sanitation authority of the County ordered the Montrose company to cease dumping into its sewers.

EPA, meanwhile, was taking notes of these criminal activities but was saying very little. It was preoccupied with the ocean dumping of DDT. Its staff interviewed Steve Simanonok about the DDT dumping in the waters of California coast. In the 1980s, Simanonok had worked as an EPA inspector. He confirmed the illegal activities of the corpore owners of DDT. He also revealed the immoral policies of the local California authorities that approved the DDT dumping. He said:

DDT waste acid was transported from the Montrose DDT plant by liquid waste haulers in bulk tanker trucks, loaded aboard California Salvage barges in bulk holding tanks, and discharged at sea as liquid waste as the barge circled the disposal site… A handful of LA City and LA County agencies created an early system of tracking the transport and disposal of industrial wastes in the 1940s and 1950s… multiple agencies coordinated this effort by requiring waste haulers to file monthly reports with these agencies… [reports] listed the generator of the waste, the type of waste, and the quantity of waste… California Salvage disposal of Montrose DDT waste acid at the permitted deep-water ocean disposal site, Site # 1, in the Santa Cruz basin off the Southern California coast… this site was established by the US Navy after WWII to dispose of military munitions. In fact, the founders of California Salvage were ex-Navy personnel who were aware of the disposal site and sought permits to expand the site for Southern California industrial waste, radioactive waste, laboratory waste, and medical waste.”

Metaphysics of the DDT crime

It’s hard to comprehend the vast implications of this crime of DDT dumping. EPA’s conclusion bypasses the intellectual, political, and scientific foundations of this immorality and crime:

“EPA’s initial research found that acid waste from the Montrose Torrance plant was transported by tanker trucks, transferred into barges, and disposed of in bulk directly into ocean waters by California Salvage.”

Rosanne Xia, staff writer of the Los Angeles Times, has done a remarkable reporting on the DDT dumping, revealing that “other chemicals — as well as millions of tons of oil drilling waste — had also been dumped decades ago in more than a dozen areas off the Southern California coast.”

Xia is rightly angry about “DDT’s toxic — and insidious — legacy in California. As many as half a million barrels of DDT waste have not been accounted for in the deep ocean.”

True. I am angry, too. All Californians should be very angry. Imagine dumping DDT and other hazardous wastes not merely near Catalina Island and the waters of the Los Angeles harbor but at 13 additional sites off the coast of Southern California. The stuff dumped included military explosives, radioactive waste, refinery, and petroleum waste – something like 3 million metric tons of petroleum waste alone.

Are we to assume that Californian authorities were so science illiterate that, honestly, they believed that the massive amounts of dangerous DDT stuff dumped in the waters of Southern California would be “inert”? Of course, not. Evidence of harm had been all over the natural world and in their cancer clinics.

However, industrialized societies have never shined in ethical behavior.

“Deep ocean disposal of industrial, military, nuclear, and other hazardous waste was a pervasive global practice in the 20th century, the full magnitude of which remains unknown. In the United States, records indicate that 50−97 million tons of industrial waste were dumped at sea, representing an unknown fraction of the total quantity,” wrote David Valentine and colleagues in a scientific paper in 2019.

These disposal practices mirrored corruption, corporate authoritarianism, bribes and deep immersion in the lies and propaganda of the industry. Otherwise, this crime will remain in the clouds of doubt. It’s the same political corruption afflicting the executives of fossil fuel companies and the G.O.P. who deny climate change.

Wildlife and humans in a sea of poisons and toxic wastes

This poison brew in the costal waters of California is deleterious to fish and wildlife. The magnificent condors and dolphins have been threatened with death and extinction.

The condor, Gymnogyps californianus, is prehistoric. It dates from the Pleistocene, a geological epoch of very large mammals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats. The Pleistocene lasted from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago.

The condor made it to our time, barely. There were 22 California condors alive in the world in 1982. Now, in 2022, there are 537 California condors only because of join efforts to save the condors from extinction by government and environmentalists.

However, this marvelous and paradigmatic effort is threatened by the ceaseless pollution of the Southern coast of California. Condors, other birds of prey, fish and fish-eating sea lions and dolphins are afflicted by 40 poisons, especially DDT and DDT-like chemicals. They carry seven times more DDT in their flesh and blood than other ocean coastal animals. Sea lions are engulfed by an epidemic of DDT-sparked cancers.

Condors eating carrion like sea lions or fish contaminated by DDT cannot reproduce. Their eggs have thin shells, which break easily, exactly like the eggs of birds in the early introduction of DDT in the environment. DDT is the “principal” cause of the thinning of the condor eggs.

Condors and wildlife are not the sole targets of DDT. People swim in the polluted waters of Southern California. They also eat the fish from those DDT-drenched waters. Women are especially vulnerable. Mothers with DDT-induced cancer pass on their deadly affliction to their daughters and granddaughters.


We should be grateful to Professor Valentine for discovering this horrific truth, harm, and crime 3,000 feet under the waters of Southern California. Funding more studies is necessary, but not the end of the story.

The governor of California Gavin Newsom must see that such crimes cease, and the criminals brought to justice. He should seek assistance from the Biden administration to clean up the DDT waste and other toxic wastes in the ocean floor of Southern California. DDT barrels are probably 70 years old, either disintegrating or falling apart from corrosion. They must be removed from the ocean floor before they release more poisons into the marine environment.

The Pentagon should clean up its own explosive wastes as well.

Our scientific community should follow the paradigm of Valentine. Fight for the public good. Use their knowledge and technologies to uncover and disclose the ecological and health harms of industrialized agriculture and other industrial activities. Then, when the scientific community takes its responsibility seriously, does this and other societies have a better chance, for instance, to fight right away and rigorously the rising giant climate monster already harming humans, civilization, and the planet.

The DDT tragedy is revealing the immense price we and our endangered natural world pay when science is misused, the industry reigns supreme, and crimes are covered up.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.