It’s not just toxic chemicals. Radioactive waste was also dumped off Los Angeles coast via LA Times


FEB. 21, 2024 5 AM PT

For decades, a graveyard of corroding barrels has littered the seafloor just off the coast of Los Angeles. It was out of sight, out of mind — a not-so-secret secret that haunted the marine environment until a team of researchers came across them with an advanced underwater camera.

Speculation abounded as to what these mysterious barrels might contain. Startling amounts of DDT near the barrels pointed to a little-known history of toxic pollution from what was once the largest DDT manufacturer in the nation, but federal regulators recently determined that the manufacturer had not bothered with barrels. (Its acid waste was poured straight into the ocean instead.)

Now, as part of an unprecedented reckoning with the legacy of ocean dumping in Southern California, scientists have concluded the barrels may actually contain low-level radioactive waste. Records show that from the 1940s through the 1960s, it was not uncommon for local hospitals, labs and other industrial operations to dispose barrels of tritium, carbon-14 and other similar waste at sea.


And in the process of digging up old records, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discovered that from the 1930s to the early 1970s, 13 other areas off the Southern California coast had also been approved for dumping of military explosives, radioactive waste and various refinery byproducts — including 3 million metric tons of petroleum waste.


The company, now defunct, had received a permit in 1959 to dump containerized radioactive waste about 150 miles offshore, according to the U.S. Federal Register. Although archived notes by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission say the permit was never activated, other records show California Salvage advertised its radioactive waste disposal services and received waste in the 1960s from a radioisotope facility in Burbank, as well as barrels of tritium and carbon-14 from a regional Veterans Administration hospital facility.

Given recent revelations that the people in charge of getting rid of the DDT waste sometimes took shortcuts and just dumped it closer to port, researchers say they would not be surprised if the radioactive waste had also been dumped closer than 150 miles offshore.


The sobering reality, he noted, is that it wasn’t until the 1970s that people started to take radioactive waste to landfills rather than dump it in the ocean.

He pulled out an old map published by the International Atomic Energy Agency that noted from 1946 to 1970, more than 56,000 barrels of radioactive waste had been dumped into the Pacific Ocean on the U.S. side. And across the world even today, low-level radioactive waste is still being released into the ocean by nuclear power plants and decommissioned plants such as the one in Fukushima, Japan.

“The problem with the oceans as a dumping solution is once it’s there, you can’t go back and get it,” said Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity. “These 56,000 barrels, for example, we’re never going to get them back.”


“It’s extremely overwhelming. … There’s still so much we don’t know,” said John Chesnutt, a Superfund section manager who has been leading the EPA’s technical team on the ocean dumping investigation. “Whether it’s radioactivity or explosives what have you, there’s potentially a wide range of contaminants out there that aren’t good for the environment and the food web, if they’re really moving through it.”

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