Trial makes its way to court after 10 years of paperwork

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 18, 2000

LOS ANGELES — An ocean pollution trial a decade in the making began Tuesday with prosecutors calling for more than $47 million to compensate for what they called the world’s biggest pile of DDT, in the Santa Monica Bay. 

Both sides had boxes and books of evidence stacked high in the standing-room-only courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real, who ruled earlier this month that the now-banned pesticide had harmed bald eagles and peregrine falcons on the Channel Islands. 

Questions to be answered in the trial include how much Montrose Corp. and five related companies are to blame for that pollution – which took place from 1947 to 1971 – and how much the companies should pay to make up for it. The trial stems from a lawsuit filed in 1990. 

Montrose’s DDT manufacturing facility in Torrance released hundreds of pounds of the pesticide a day into the sewer system and ultimately the Palos Verdes Shelf of the Santa Monica Bay, Layn Phillips, an attorney representing the state of California, said in opening statements. 

The pesticide, which was widely used in the United States until it was banned about 30 years ago, is linked to cancer and reproductive problems in humans and continues to contaminate fish and kill bald eagle chicks. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the contaminated area a Superfund site in 1996, and is experimenting with a dredging operation in which tons of silt from Long Beach Harbor is being poured into the waters off the Palos Verdes Peninsula to cover the DDT deposit. 

Defense lawyers acknowledge the dumping of DDT into the ocean, but argue those actions have not significantly harmed marine life, fishing or the public health. 

The injuries “don’t lead to any damages in the real world,” attorney Harvey J. Wolkoff said. The DDT on the Palos Verdes Shelf is about 200 feet deep, and the white croakers that most commonly swim such depths are not common food for either other marine life or humans, he said. 

He cited a 1990 state Department of Fish and Game study that found only four or five local fishermen caught white croakers, and the amount they caught – about 20,000 pounds – was worth only about $10,000. 


But a 1997 study by the environmental group Heal the Bay found that white croaker was being sold in Asian markets throughout greater Los Angeles, and about 85 percent of it exceeded the EPA’s recommended criteria for fish contamination. 

Wolkoff also said prosecutors are exaggerating the effect DDT has had on bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations in the Channel Islands. He said he would show the current numbers over all eight islands are the same as their pre-DDT populations, although the numbers in the southernmost islands are down. 

Wolkoff argued that other sources of DDT pollution such as agricultural runoff and Navy practice bombings in some of the Channel Islands cause more damage than that released by Montrose. “Montrose’s DDT is buried, and it keeps getting more buried every year,” he said, adding that the chemical has been biodegrading. 

Wolkoff said Montrose’s production of DDT was “not only entirely lawful, but welcome” by the federal government — its biggest purchaser of the pesticide. 

But Phillips said the contamination violated both state law and the facility’s city permit. 

Companies named in the suit are countersuing the state alleging its policies are to blame for the release of the DDT. 

Phillips said the logic behind the countersuit amounts to “Yes, I polluted, but you, the government, failed to stop me,” and would send environmental rules to “regulatory cuckoo-land.” 

Prosecutors had said they would seek as much as $170 million from the companies to help cover past and future costs of contamination, but that figure dropped last month, when Real ruled that the government could not sue for future cleanup costs. That ruling is under appeal. 

In addition, both sides announced Tuesday they were close to reaching a partial settlement for what environmental officials have spent studying the Montrose plant site, but not the offshore contamination. That settlement was expected to be finalized this week. 

U.S. Department of Justice attorney Steven O’Rourke said it will take an estimated $47 million to cover the cost of federal enforcement, assessment of the offshore pollution problem and the future restoration of Channel Islands peregrine falcon and bald eagle populations. 

The government also wants Montrose to pay to restore fish populations harmed by DDT and make up for lost natural resources in the area since the pollution began in 1947. But O’Rourke said an earlier ruling prevented him from specifying a dollar amount for those two items.