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DDT Maker Agrees to Pay for Polluting Ocean

October 28, 2000|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Striking a deal in one of the nation's largest and longest-standing environmental cases, Montrose Chemical Corp. and two other companies agreed Friday to pay an undisclosed amount to compensate Californians for damages linked to a giant DDT deposit in the ocean off Los Angeles.

After nearly a week of testimony, U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real adjourned the trial on Friday, ordering that the agreement between the government and industry remain confidential until a consent decree outlining the terms is filed by Dec. 15.

Attorneys for both sides declined to discuss the terms of the agreement. But the deal came near the end of the government's case, after several scientific witnesses had given testimony about the effects of half a century of contamination and after Montrose had suffered a major defeat during the trial.

Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and the state attorney general's office seemed elated as they left the Los Angeles courtroom. The government was seeking roughly $150 million in the case for damages to natural resources. The issue of who must pay for cleaning up the deposit--Montrose or the federal Superfund--remains before a federal appeals court.

"It's been 10 years of litigation. It's good to have it over. We're happy with the results is all we can say," said Steve O'Rourke, the lead attorney in the federal government's case.

By contrast, attorneys for Montrose and the other defendants left the courtroom with no comment on Friday, their staffs quietly packing up several dozen boxes of evidence.

Montrose attorneys have long argued that the company's former pesticide plant near Torrance, which produced the DDT in question, had operated legally and that the ocean deposit is not harming birds, fish or other resources.

Company lawyers had argued, among other things, that the underwater deposit is degrading into harmless compounds and that the DDT found in fish and birds in the region could have come from agricultural runoff, not from the underwater deposit.

Those assertions received a serious setback last week when Real ruled that John List, the leading scientific consultant for Montrose and the other companies, did not qualify as an expert on either issue.

At the same time, Real, who was hearing the case without a jury, was presented with testimony in great detail from several biologists and geologists called by the government. The witnesses described the extent of the DDT on the ocean floor and the reproductive damage to eagles and falcons.

After hearing that testimony and making his ruling about List, Real called a weeklong recess in the trial. During the time off, the two sides completed the settlement.

Those final negotiations came at a high point for the government's case and a low point for Montrose, said one government attorney.

"I think they felt like they got beat up pretty badly last week. That's got to hurt," the attorney said.

The 100 tons of DDT at the center of the case--the largest known deposit of the pesticide in the world--has been the focus of a decade of intense litigation. The pesticide is contaminating about 17 square miles of sediment on the deep ocean floor about a mile off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The area is on the federal Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous chemical sites.

The case ranks among the most expensive environmental lawsuits to be waged. Except for claims in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the government was seeking more money from Montrose and its co-defendants than in any other case involving damages to natural resources.

At times during the 10 years, Montrose appeared close to victory. In 1995, the case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge A. Andrew Hauk, but it was later reinstated by an appeals court.

Montrose, now defunct except for the lawsuit, was the world's largest manufacturer of DDT, which was the most widely used pesticide in history. DDT was banned in the United States in the early 1970s, after it was linked to severe reproductive problems in birds and other wildlife and to cancer in humans.

Plant Manufactured DDT for Many Years

From 1947 until 1971, Montrose manufactured DDT at its plant here, discharging its waste into Los Angeles County sewers. The sewers empty into the ocean at White Point.

Government experts say bald eagles on Santa Catalina Island contain so much DDT in their tissues that they cannot reproduce without human help. One bald eagle on the island died of severe DDT poisoning as recently as 1993, nearly a quarter century after the pesticide was banned.

Also, white croaker fish in Santa Monica Bay contain amounts of the pesticide considered unsafe for human consumption, and peregrine falcons on the Channel Islands are laying eggs with thin shells.

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