There Are Massive Chemical Dumps In The Gulf We Know Almost Nothing About

In the 1970s, the EPA allowed chemical companies to dump toxic waste into the deep sea. Now, oil giants are drilling right on top of it.

Seventy miles off the coast of Louisiana, among a maze of drilling platforms and seafloor pipelines, thousands of 55-gallon drums containing hazardous industrial chemicals litter a vast, dark swath of the ocean floor. They’ve been sitting there for nearly 50 years.

Charles McCreery was a few months into a new job as an oceanographer and water quality expert at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management when he first learned of the dumping ground. It was 2014, and he was tasked with reviewing oil giant Shell’s exploration plans in an offshore leasing area known as Mississippi Canyon, in the north-central Gulf of Mexico. Deep in the document, he came across the company’s internal policy for steering clear of toxic waste barrels, and what to do should their operations puncture or disturb one.

“The content, and its toxicity, of each individual barrel is not known,” the Shell document reads. “Within the area there are/could be many hundreds of waste barrels. Many of the barrels may have released their contents over time.”

The plan detailed potential hazards associated with the drums, from worker exposure while retrieving deep-sea equipment to underwater explosions. Metal salts, one of the many waste materials discarded at the site, react violently when exposed to water.

Starting in 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency issued chemical giants permits to discard thousands of drums of industrial chemical waste at the offshore site. The pollutants included chlorinated hydrocarbons, or CHCs, a family of toxic chemicals that can persist in the environment and become concentrated in marine organisms, potentially migrating up the food chain and posing a risk to human health.

In the decades since, oil companies have built up a vast network of wells and seafloor pipelines in the same portion of the Gulf. The area’s largest producer is Shell Offshore Inc., a subsidiary of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which operates three platform rigs and three drillships in what’s known as the Mars-Ursa oil basin. Shell also happens to be one of the companies that received permits from the EPA to dump huge quantities of industrial chemical waste in the Gulf in the 1970s, albeit at a different location.

mississippicanyon dumpFI In: There Are Massive Chemical Dumps In The Gulf We Know Almost Nothing About | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida

This map shows the offshore leasing blocks where dumped waste barrels have been detected along the seafloor during hazard surveys. 

Shell’s exploration plan ultimately led McCreery to a February 2014 notice about an upcoming auction of more than 40 million acres in the central Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas development, in which the BOEM alerted would-be bidders of the “inactive commercial waste disposal site” spanning more than 200 square miles of water south of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The area “should be considered potentially hazardous” and “drilling and platform/pipeline placement may require precautions,” the BOEM’s notice warned. The agency noted that ocean surveys have turned up barrels as far as 10 miles from the designated dump boundary.

The barrels lie in an important domestic fishery and one of the most active offshore drilling areas on the planet. To this day, with the exception of federal officials and the energy companies drilling in the Gulf, few are aware of this legacy dumping ground.

The ocean dump would come to consume McCreery, who had worked as a geologist for Gulf Oil Co. and Chevron in the mid-1980s and for more than two decades as an environmental consultant specializing in hazardous waste remediation. He submitted public records requests to obtain EPA-issued disposal permits. He combed through company shipping logs and any government documents he could get his hands on.

Within the area there are/could be many hundreds of waste barrels. Many of the barrels may have released their contents over time. Shell Offshore Inc.’s barrel avoidance plan

McCreery wanted to know why fossil fuel exploration and extraction was being allowed on top of a field of hazardous waste and why the EPA had signed off on the dumping in the first place. More than that, he wanted to know the long-term environmental impacts, and the extent to which the federal government is studying and regulating the site — if at all.

In exchanges with HuffPost, the EPA — the agency responsible for monitoring designated offshore dumping grounds — could not point to any evidence that it kept track of the barrel field beyond the 1970s or has any understanding of the lingering effects.

A Legacy Of Deep-Blue Dumping

Throughout much of the early 20th century, the U.S. government and industry treated the ocean as a bottomless pit, too vast and too deep for human pollution to leave a mark. This policy of “out of sight, out of mind” governed a number of decisions on dumping chemical and nuclear wastes, heavy metals, military ordnance and medical waste at dozens of sites off the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The 1972 Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act sought to bring an end to unfettered ocean dumping and better protect marine ecosystems, severely restricting what can be disposed of at sea and where. However, a section of the law granted the EPA the authority to issue special and emergency permits so long as it could prove the dumping would not “unreasonably degrade or endanger human health, welfare, or amenities, or the marine environment, ecological systems, or economic potentialities.”

In the months and years after President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law, the newly formed EPA issued multiple permits allowing companies like Shell Chemical Co., DuPont, Ethyl Corp. and GAF Corp. to dump more than 2.5 million tons of hazardous industrial waste into the Gulf, largely from the production of plastics and pesticides. A second disposal location roughly 125 miles south of Galveston, Texas, is known as Site A, and the Mississippi Canyon area is known as Site B. Both are partially detailed in a lengthy 1975 National Academy of Sciences report on ocean contaminants. HuffPost also reviewed annual EPA ocean dumping reports and EPA-issued discharge permits that McCreery obtained via public records requests.

In a letter to the EPA chief, McCreery said the site ‘is the result of a discontinued disposal practice and is not adequately regulated by modern standards,’ and the barrels ‘represent a substantial threat of release.’

At Site A, the EPA granted Shell Chemical five permits between 1973 and 1977 to jettison some 350,000 tons of industrial waste — approximately the weight of the Empire State Building — including hazardous chemical and heavy metal pollutants, from its manufacturing complex in Deer Park, Texas. Among the dumped CHCs were trichloropropane, a waste product of plastic production that was added to fumigants and that the EPA lists as a probable carcinogen; methyl chloroform, an ozone-depleting liquid used in solvents; and tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, a volatile and dangerous chemical used in degreasers and dry cleaning.

At that same site, the chemical giant DuPont was allowed to ditch at least 450,000 tons of industrial waste from three of its facilities, two in Texas and one in West Virginia. It dumped numerous organic and inorganic chemicals, including residues from fungicide production, arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. GAF Corp. was permitted to dump roughly 168,000 tons of chlorinated acid compounds from the manufacture of soybean herbicide.

At Site B, in Mississippi Canyon, fuel additive company Ethyl Corp. was approved to dump approximately 19,000 barrels of waste sludge containing liquid metal salts and calcium — drums that Shell’s internal policy notes could still pose an explosive hazard. And DuPont deposited at least 1,300 barrels of waste, including “a wide variety of inorganic salts, industrial organics and chlorinated hydrocarbons” from its facility in LaPlace, Louisiana, according to the National Academy report.

That report highlights two different methods corporations used to ditch their waste. At Site A, companies did so directly into the water “through a submerged pipe into the turbulent wake of a barge,” whereas Site B was “used exclusively for materials which are placed in barrels” before being jettisoned.

McCreery reasoned that the direct discharge method at Site A likely meant there was little anyone could do about the pollution impacts at this point. But he was concerned about Site B, where fossil fuel drilling could disturb barrels and release whatever remains inside into the water column. The Mississippi Canyon barrel field is about 45 miles southwest of where BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, and just outside what’s known as the “fertile fisheries crescent,” an especially productive area of the northern Gulf stretching from the Texas-Louisiana border to Mobile Bay.

Most of the chemicals and materials listed in EPA-issued permits for the two sites are on the agency’s list of high-priority pollutants and therefore “have a range of potential detrimental effects in the environment,” said Chuck Kennicutt, an oceanographer at Texas A&M University.

“Unfortunately, we will be dealing with legacy pollution for years to come at many locations,” he said.

Chris Reddy, an environmental chemist and marine pollution expert at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said the substances “span a wide continuum of reactivities, potential for injury, long-term persistence and the possibility of trace amounts of highly potent chemicals of concern,” and warrant thorough scientific study.

“The scale of potential problems demands rigor,” he said.

‘It Felt Like I Was Being Ignored’

McCreery has spent five years trying unsuccessfully to get that message across to people in positions of power. Over that time, he’s developed some extraordinary theories about the sites that he’s put in writing to multiple government officials and presented at a scientific conference last year, alleging that what’s contained at the sites is far worse than what the documents disclose, and that federal regulators have conspired with industry to cover it up.

McCreery refused to sign off on Shell’s exploration plan in 2014 because he was concerned the company’s policy for avoiding seafloor barrels was not adequate. When he raised his concerns with a supervisor, he said he was told it would be a conflict of interest for him to continue work related to the barrel site, since he had already filed public records requests to the EPA as a private citizen. He recused himself from the project, though he suspected his bosses wanted to deter him from further scrutinizing the site. (The BOEM told HuffPost its policy is not to comment on personnel matters.)

A few weeks after obtaining EPA-issued permits for the two sites in May 2016, McCreery decided to take it up with McCarthy, who led the EPA for four years under President Barack Obama and now serves as President Joe Biden’s domestic climate czar. The EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation responded to his letter two months later, informing him that it had forwarded his request to its regional office in Texas to conduct an initial risk assessment to determine if the site warranted Superfund status. Contacted for this story, EPA spokesperson Jennah Durant said the Texas office “was not able to locate a record of any response to this request,” but after HuffPost’s inquiry said it would now begin an assessment to determine appropriate next steps for the site.