Dumped in L.A. & Stumped in Illinois

Two Re-Emerged Chemical Cases Demonstrate How The Truth Always Comes Out.

No, it’s not a dating advice column, today we’re talking about the ways industry leaves their toxic footprint and walks away.

Two big chemical stories have re-emerged in the last week and both stories speak to what happens when scientists and communities keep pushing an issue. Let’s just say the truth always comes out.  

So, let’s talk about it.

Holy Barrels, Batman

First, we finally have images and proof of a massive underwater toxic waste site off the coast of Southern California.

Marine scientists led by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography found more than 27,000 suspected barrels of DDT at the foot of the ocean between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles, in an area previously found to contain high levels of DDT. 

“Unfortunately, the basin offshore Los Angeles had been a dumping ground for industrial waste for several decades, beginning in the 1930s,” said Eric Terrill, chief scientist of the expedition in a statement. “We found an extensive debris field in the wide area survey. Now that we’ve mapped this area at very high resolution, we are hopeful the data will inform the development of strategies to address potential impacts from the dumping.”

Terrill described the images as “staggering.”

You may remember DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) as the main character in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring published in 1962, causing public outcry about widespread pesticide use and its adverse effects on wildlife and the environment. Carson called out the chemical industry for spreading disinformation and public officials for accepting their marketing claims without question.

DDT was developed in the 1940s as one of the first synthetic insecticides, used to combat malaria and to help control insects in agriculture, institutions, homes, and gardens, but it was banned by the EPA in 1972 and has since been classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and other international agencies. Studies have found this chemical to be very persistent in the environment with the ability to travel long distances in the upper atmosphere.

The biggest manufacturer of DDT was Montrose Chemical Corp., a 13-acre facility in operation from 1947 to 1982 located in Los Angeles. Once closed, the company demolished the factory and paved everything over with asphalt. The property was declared a Superfund site in 1989. In addition to contaminating the local groundwater, the plant dumped chemicals into the ocean.

But that’s not all. Historical shipping logs disclose that other industrial companies used this area as a dumping ground until 1972, when the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, was enacted.

This is why I say that we have good laws in the books, but we must continue to enforce them so we don’t repeat our mistakes.

The current expedition took place in March 2021 as the Research Vessel Sally Ride placed underwater drones utilizing sonar technology to take high-resolution images of the barrels resting 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.

Rosanna Xia, an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote, “But as the scientists on deck began interpreting sonar images gathered by two deep-sea robots, they were quickly overwhelmed. It was like trying to count stars in the Milky Way.”

She’s done great reporting on how exposure to DDT can have ripple effects for generations.

Let’s also give credit to UC Santa Barbara professor David Valentine, who in 2011 and 2013, discovered concentrated accumulations of DDT in the sediments in this region, and visually confirmed 60 barrels on the seafloor.

Check out some of the images of these barrels and watch Valentine discuss more about the site:

Images really are worth a thousand words (or more).

I’m grateful to Terrill’s team of scientists, who are working to finalize the release of the sonar data, which they hope will serve as a catalyst for an action plan and to help understand environmental impacts.

As technology advances, what other toxic legacies can we uncover?

Sing it Again, Sterigenics

Next, we turn to Willowbrook, Illinois, a small suburb of Chicago, and the former home to a Sterigenics facility that sterilized medical equipment and other products, using the chemical ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen.

The World Health Organization calls this chemical a “potent neurotoxin.”

For years, a grassroots community group has fought to get this facility to stop polluting their town, and they won, in the sense that the facility shut down in late 2019.

But the community was thrust back in the news when a Congressionally requested report from the EPA (released on April 15, 2021) found that the regulatory agency delayed communicating health risks to community residents who lived near ethylene oxide-emitting facilities in the state.

When I talk about corruption happening, it’s exactly these kinds of stories that I’m talking about.

In this instance, Bill Wehrum, a former attorney for the fossil fuel industry who served as assistant administrator of the office of Air and Radiation at the EPA until 2019, directed officials not to release the results of air monitoring that showed Willowbrook residents had an elevated risk of cancer due to exposure to ethylene oxide.

“The EPA did not achieve its mission when senior leaders issued instructions to Region 5 that impacted the region’s ability to address ethylene oxide emissions and when the EPA delayed communicating health risks regarding ethylene oxide,” according to the report.

The industrial complex was located in a densely populated metro area tucked behind a Target store. More than 19,000 people lived within 1 mile of the facility, along with four schools and one daycare center.

In addition, the report says that EPA did not conduct public meetings with residents near the Medline facility in Waukegan, Illinois, or the Vantage facility in Gurnee, Illinois.

Ethylene oxide is a flammable and colorless gas used to make a variety of products, including antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is also used to sterilize medical equipment and other items that cannot be sterilized with steam.

The EPA increased the cancer risk for ethylene oxide back in December 2016, based on studies from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, estimating the chemical to be 30 times more carcinogenic to adults than previously thought, the report says. Studies show that breathing air containing elevated levels of ethylene oxide levels for many years increases the risk of developing lymphoid cancers in males and females and breast cancer in females. Plus, children are at a greater risk of developing cancer than adults.

“Career EPA employees have characterized the situation as another ‘Flint-level’ crisis,” said a press release from of Stop Sterigenics, a community-led organization dedicated to protecting public health through exposing and educating the public of the dangers of ethylene oxide. “Political appointees instructed U.S. EPA employees not to conduct testing or inspections, to remove critical information from public view, and prohibited the notification of communities about their risks.”

“Essentially, we ran a successful campaign to make Sterigenics go away,” said Sri Rao, one of the founders Stop Sterigenics, when we spoke with him this week.

Sri says the way his community found out about the air pollution was by luck—the air monitoring happened because of an EPA warehouse located next to the Sterigenics facility.  

Meanwhile, Sterigenics continued to tell the community they were lowering emissions to undetectable levels.

“We are lucky,” Sri told me. “DuPage County did a cancer study in conjunction with state health department, but most other communities have gotten nothing.”

The Willowbrook community has suffered a staggeringly high rate of cancer and hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the company, alleging health issues such as cancer and miscarriages were caused by emissions from the local facility. One complaint alleges that the company has known about ethylene oxide’s carcinogenic effects since 1984.

Sterigenics and other companies like it continue to release ethylene oxide in other communities throughout the U.S. and the world. Communities in Georgia and New Mexico are still fighting this company.

“We would like to see alternatives to this chemical in the marketplace and in the meantime, testing is number 1,” Sri said. “We need to have testing done in places where we know there are emissions. Every community needs to be notified about the dangers present to their community. Once we make people safe, then we need people to be held accountable. These other communities are still fighting. These businesses don’t belong near homes, schools, or where people live.”

His group lends support to a sister group in Georgia, but the work is beyond any one community. This chemical is regulated by multiple federal agencies including the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, two different divisions of the EPA, and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Even if one agency can make a rule, the industry can create a loophole somewhere else,” he said.

In a press release from the mayors of Willowbrook, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, and Darien, they said, “We promise our residents that this is just the beginning of our reckoning for the truth regarding ethylene oxide in our communities and holding those accountable for these failures.”

Here’s hoping a reckoning with this chemical is coming for those communities who are most impacted.