‘Underwater Roombas’ Searching Ocean Floor for DDT Dumped Near Catalina

Malibu Surfrider Beach near the Malibu Lagoon on Monday afternoon, July 1, during the dry season.

Back in October, the LA Times first reported on a UC-Santa Barbara study confirming that thousands of barrels of DDT waste had been dumped into the deep ocean off Santa Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of LA County. As soon as the news hit, the wheels were put in motion to send another scientific expedition to collect more data. Headed by UC-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and fast-tracked by federal officials like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, action was taken in record time.

Last Thursday, Sally Ride, one of the most technologically advanced research ships in the U.S., left San Diego for the San Pedro Basin for two weeks with 31 scientists and crew members aboard to survey 50,000 acres of 3,000-foot-deep ocean bottom.

According to the LA Times, the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT once operated on the border of Los Angeles and Torrance and dumped its waste into the ocean. As many as 500,000 barrels of DDT could still be underwater today. Catalina is only 48 miles from Malibu.

The current expedition is using two high-tech robots that scientists refer to as “underwater Roombas” to comb the ocean floor with sonar to obtain high-resolution data and photos that will result in a “map” of where to focus further chemical and sediment studies.

Critical questions include the extent to which DDT dumped into the deep ocean has been harming wildlife and where the DDT is being distributed as it leaks out of the barrels.

A 1980s study, which is being re-examined, showed high levels of DDT in three species of deep-sea fish. In addition, scientists continue to find significant amounts of DDT-related compounds in Southern California dolphins and a recent study concluded that cancer growth in sea lions is exacerbated by DDT accumulating in their blubber.

The U.S. banned the use of the DDT pesticide in 1972, but the chemical is so stable it continues to poison the environment and accumulate up the food chain.

Shelley Luce, president of Heal the Bay, told the LA Times she worries about the people who continue to feed their families with contaminated fish caught off local piers.