20201 Normandie Avenue is located in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood, a narrow strip of land that extends from the city of Los Angeles towards its harbor. Normandie Avenue runs parallel to the 110 freeway that connects Pasadena, downtown Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. Along this corridor, we can trace the well-worn and now faded path of industry through the city: from the laboratories of Caltech in Pasadena, where new technologies are developed; to the skyscrapers in the financial district, where these innovations are funded by capital; to the factories along the freeway, where innovation is implemented; and finally to the port, where the resulting products are distributed.
Today many of the factories that once stood along the 110 have been razed, following the downscaling of American industry. In the industrial park along Normandie Avenue, the plants have been replaced by indistinguishable white warehouses occupied by companies in the business of distribution, logistics and importing. Among these buildings, next to decaying railroad tracks, sits a large paved lot lined with concertina wire. On the fence is a sign notifying passerby that this location – 20201 Normandie Avenue in Torrance, California – is a Superfund site. It is here that the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, at one time the largest manufacturer of DDT in the world, operated from 1947 to 1982.
The development of DDT as an insecticide was the result of concerted corporate, scientific and government initiatives during WWII. This came from a need to protect the military from insect-born diseases such as malaria and typhus. By the end of the war, firms such as Dupont and the Montrose Chemical Company of New Jersey were manufacturing the pesticide. Between 1943 and 1945, annual DDT production in the US grew from 200,000 pounds to over 13 million; between 1955 and 1956, American corporations manufactured over 130 million pounds of the chemical. In these years of post-war expansion, major chemical companies such as Merck and Monsanto added DDT to their product roster.
The Montrose Chemical Company of California began producing DDT in Torrance in 1947. By 1956, it was the largest manufacturer of the pesticide in the world. At this time, environmental and health concerns over DDT were minimal. Between 1947 and 1953, the company disposed of its manufacturing waste in a drainage ditch that ran along the plant property. After local residents complained, the company obtained permission, at the suggestion of a local public works engineer, to dump its waste into the county sewage system. These byproducts drained out into the Pacific, untreated, at White Point on the Palos Verdes coast. Montrose did not stop dumping waste into the system until 1971, when pressure from local officials forced the company to stop. It was later found that Montrose had poured some 640 pounds of DDT a day into the Los Angeles sewers.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, public awareness of DDT’s toxic effects on the environment was growing, due in large part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. As pressure mounted to end the production and use of DDT, Montrose focused on exporting their product and defending its safety. 1963 was a record year for sales at Montrose.
As the domestic market for DDT contacted, Montrose continued supplying their product to international organizations working to eradicate malaria. After DDT was banned in the US in 1972, Montrose enjoyed another decade of prosperity until the strong dollar marked the end of profits for US exporters. Montrose manufactured their last batch of DDT in 1982 and dismantled the plant the following year.
Due to extensive toxic contamination discovered at the site and in nearby neighborhoods, 20201 Normandie Avenue was given Superfund status in 1989. Off the Palos Verdes coast, between the mainland and Catalina Island, lies the world’s largest deposit of DDT, also traced back to the Montrose plant. These 17 square miles of ocean floor were added to the Superfund list in 1996. In 1990, the EPA brought suit against the Montrose Chemical Corporation charging the company was financially responsible for environmental clean-up. After fighting the suit for a decade, Montrose finally agreed to pay a $73 million settlement.
Standing at White Point on the Palos Verdes coast affords spectacular views of Catalina Island and the Pacific. With Rolling Hills Estates extending behind, you face the ocean: the waves crash on rocky beaches below, pelicans fly by at eye level and the blue ocean goes on forever. Little more than a mile offshore from where you’re standing lies the 17-square mile Palos Verdes Shelf Superfund site, reaching south to Point Fermin and north to Palos Verdes Point. Just as industry carved its path on the surface of the city along the 110 freeway, its by-products flowed along an analogous route underground, through the sewage system, and out to the Pacific.