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.
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.”