Rebeca Méndez, The Sea Around Us (2022). Video installation. Laguna Art Museum.
Laguna Art Museum.
Anyone who’s ever made the ferry ride from California’s mainland across the San Pedro Channel out to resplendent Catalina Island has passed directly over or nearby a toxic waste dump. A hidden toxic waste dump. A massive toxic waste dump. An illegal toxic waste dump.
DDT to be specific. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a widely used insecticide popular for pest control during the 1940s and 50s. Poison. Deadly to humans, more so to animals. DDT is what nearly drove bald eagles, osprey, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons to extinction in the U.S.
After initially finding elevated levels of DDT in sediment and visually observing barrels of the chemical on the seafloor in 2011 and 2013, researchers returned for a more complete examination in 2021 and were shocked by what they found: 27,000 barrels. Likely a great many more.
“The basin offshore Los Angeles had been a dumping ground for industrial waste for several decades, beginning in the 1930s,” Eric Terrill, chief scientist of the expedition and director of the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said at the time.
That fact was well-known. Unknown was the volume of disposal and how it exceeded legal for allowances for amount and location.
Reporting by the L.A. Times published in 2020 exposed the industrial scale with which the seabed floor 3,000 feet below the surface was used as a dumping ground. Half a million barrels? Maybe, according to the Times investigation. For 35 years beginning in 1947, the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT–Montrose Chemical Corp.–was based in Los Angeles. A company with a record of environmental abuse. It is responsible for a multi-square-mile Superfund site almost swimming distance from the mainland between Torrance and Catalina.
Companies–not just Montrose–are thought to have dumped between 386 and 772 tons of waste at offshore locations in the San Pedro Basin over nearly four decades according to Terrill. The list includes “explosives, oil refinery waste, trash and rotting meats… beryllium, various acid sludges, even cyanide,” the Times reported.
The impact on marine life, irreversible.
The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, but Montrose continued producing the poison for overseas markets another 10 years.
It is against this backdrop that visitors to the Laguna Art Museum approach Rebeca Méndez’ 360-degree video art installation The Sea Around Us. Featured as part of the museum’s 10th annual Art & Nature festival, the artwork transports viewers to an area of the Pacific Ocean located 30 miles from the Laguna Beach Coast, portraying the ocean as a fully animated body with deep interconnectedness for all living things. The video then shifts to thousands of oozing barrels of DDT on the seafloor being sampled by robotic arms, footage captured by the Scripps Institute researchers.
A wonderland. A wasteland.
The Laguna Art Museum, steps from what appears for all the world to be the idyllic nearshore Pacific Ocean, looks out upon both the wonderland and wasteland, hidden, of course, beneath the surface, making this the perfect place to present …….