Dangerous levels of DDT pollution in the Richmond Harbor

Several scientists, EPA representatives, and scuba divers worked to pull up mussels that had been in the bottom of the Lauritzen Channel for a month. The mussels measure the level of pollutants in the water. (2012)

Several scientists, EPA representatives, and scuba divers worked to pull up mussels that had been in the bottom of the Lauritzen Channel for a month. The mussels measure the level of pollutants in the water. (2012)

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky last Thursday morning, and the sun beat off Richmond Bay in an inlet just east of Point Richmond. In this part of Richmond, the natural mixes closely with the industrial: construction equipment and piles of scrap metal standing a quarter of a mile high jutted obtrusively into the view of the sun on the water. From the dock, a group of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives quietly watched a snorkeler on the side of a small pontoon boat as he pulled on bright blue flippers. A minute later, he slipped off the edge, and with a small splash, he was in the water, swimming toward a deflated soccer ball floating in the middle of Lauritzen Channel, a trail of bubbles tracking behind him.

A scuba diver gets ready to dive to the bottom of the inlet in the Richmond Harbor.

The soccer ball was tied to a basket of mussels embedded in the sediment at the bottom of the channel. In the past, when EPA officials attached the mussels to a normal buoy, people would steal them, possibly thinking they were lobster traps, says Penny Redding, an EPA project manager for the Lauritzen Channel. The soccer ball deceptively looks like a piece of trash floating in the water, which protects the mussels from thieves.

The mussels will give scientists and the EPA an estimate of how much DDT—a carcinogenic and nerve-damaging chemical—is left in the area. The chemical is a part of a toxic stew left behind by the chemical company United-Heckathorn when it went bankrupt and abandoned the site in 1966. The EPA cleared more than three tons of pure DDT in 1996 during a massive cleanup effort. But it didn’t completely clean the area. The Lauritzen Channel has more DDT in it than before the 1996 cleanup, and some fish are turning up with DDT levels in their tissues hundreds of times higher than their counterparts in the rest of the San Francisco Bay. It took one company less than two decades to create a chemical mess in the Lauritzen Channel that will take almost half a century to identify and clean.  

***

In 1947, Prentiss & Co., a New York based chemical company, sent Eugene Heckathorn to Richmond to supervise a DDT-grinding plant, meant not for manufacturing but for processing and distribution, on the Lauritzen Channel. He intended to stay in California for only a short time, but he liked the West. He bought the DDT-grinding plant from Prentiss and quickly merged with United Chemical Co. to start an insecticide company—United-Heckathorn. “Heckathorn soon built a reputation for doing the jobs no one else wanted,” boasted one article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 1958.

Though United Heckathorn worked with other chemicals, like dieldrin, processing DDT accounted for 95 percent of its business. United Heckathorn imported technical grade DDT from Montrose Chemical Corporation and Shell Oil Company ground it into a powder in air mills or chemically converted it to a liquid. The company then packaged and shipped it out as an agricultural insecticide and as a combatant to malaria. United Heckathorn expanded exponentially and by 1958 it was producing more than 25 billion pounds of liquid DDT and enough insecticide to treat more than eight million acres of farmland.

The dangers of DDT weren’t known while United-Heckathorn was an active company, but now, decades later, scientists have extensively studied and documented the dangers. The United States banned DDT in 1972 after studies linked exposure to breast cancer, diabetes, miscarriages, and neurodevelopment problems in children. It resists organic decay, persisting in an ecosystem for decades. As fish and plants absorb the chemicals into their tissue and cells, and birds eat them, they spread the chemicals through the food chain, creating a perpetually dangerous cycle.

United-Heckathorn’s housekeeping policies, though, reflected the ignorance of the time. These chemicals weren’t considered dangerous and even if they were, no one was there to scold them or stop them. “It was a little bit of a standard of the time,” said Rusty Harris-Bishop, a superfund division liaison for the EPA. “Folks just didn’t pay attention to that sort of thing.”

When employees dumped the powder form of DDT from one transport container to another, clouds of dust flew out and spread over the area. Pipes running under the Lauritzen Channel leaked and spills weren’t cleaned.

In 1966, United-Heckathorn went out of business and abandoned its factory on the Richmond harbor. A few years later, the buildings were demolished and shortly afterward dead fish started floating to the top of the water. The California Department of Fish and Game noticed a milky liquid oozing from Lauritzen Channel. While the EPA’s Penny Reddy isn’t sure if the dead fish and the DDT were related, she said it was a red flag that the ecosystem wasn’t healthy.

Rusty Harris-Bishop, an EPA representative, strongly advises residents against fishing in the channel.

In 1982 the EPA declared the Lauritzen Channel a superfund site, meaning it is officially designated as a hazardous site in need of serious cleanup. In 1990, the EPA put it on the national priorities list. Six years later, the EPA dredged the bay, cleared soil from the site, and put concrete caps on some areas. It cleaned three tons of pure DDT from a 100,000 cubic yard area and cleared three feet of pure product from the top portion of the soil.

But dredging and cleaning equipment wasn’t as effective then as it is now, and large amounts of contaminants were left in place. For example, the EPA couldn’t reach areas under piles of scrap metal, under docks, or near barriers. It also turns out that the clamshell dredges used to pull up mud ended up spraying water and sediment everywhere.

”What we have learned since then is that 50 percent of those efforts have failed,” said Kelly Manheimer, EPA site manager for the Heckathorn Site. “We didn’t know that at the time. We thought it was the perfect thing to do.”

Years of boats coming in and out of the bay shuffled the soil on the bottom and DDT spread throughout the channel again. By 2011, DDT concentrations exceeded 1994 levels. Something had to be done.

***

Cleaning up old industrial sites is tedious. Before the process can start, the EPA needs to run tests. And without accurate maps, in this case marking where United-Heckathorn stored and processed DDT, the agency has to play detective to determine where the highest levels of pollution might be. They are testing the soil and water, and even using mussels to measure the pollution levels. Mussels are natural barometers for aquatic health because they are static and absorb everything in the water flowing past. The EPA gathered mussels from Bodega Bay, a relatively clean area, and put them in the Lauritzen Channel for a month. At the end of the month, the EPA officials stood on the edge of the dock and watched a scuba diver emerge and hand over a muddy bag of mussels to a scientist in a pontoon boat before pulling himself up.

A scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will examine the mussels, but the results won’t be ready until July. And then they will have to be bundled with sedimentation and water samples before the EPA can start to draft a cleanup plan, which has to go through its own bureaucratic loopholes before it can implemented. “We have this whole process,” Redding said. The EPA won’t actually start dredging and cleaning until 2015 and even then, it will likely take many years.

As the EPA representatives, scientists, and scuba divers wrapped up and left the dock the day remained gorgeous — a stark contrast to the unseen DDT that will linger in the water for decades.

The EPA will be hosting a community meeting about the Heckathorn Superfund Site on Monday, March 19, from 5:30 -7:00 p.m. at the Richmond Community Foundation at 1014 Florida Avenue, Suite 200.

One Comment

  1. Sandra Whisler

    Thanks for this very informative story. A map showing the location of this area would be helpful–it’s so hard to sort out all those inner harbor sites. Thanks

Comments are closed.