Ocean Dumping Being Reviewed

By Claudine Burnett

On Friday, January 5, 2024, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released news of a large number of discarded World War II military munitions off of Palos Verdes. This was standard practice at the time. The government is looking to “review the findings and determining the best path forward to ensure the risk to human health and the environment is managed appropriately and within applicable federal and state laws.”

The study also reported DDT, an insecticide banned in the United States in 1972, had also been dumped into the sea near the Southern California coast, though in lower amounts than had previously been thought. Fortunately, no mention of radioactive waste was mentioned. It could have been if Long Beach citizens hadn’t been vigilant and successful in their protests. My book The Red Scare, UFOs and Elvis: Long Beach Enters the Atomic Age describes what happened.

In 1946 the federal government began dumping radioactive waste in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The first was in the northwestern Pacific about 50 miles off the California coast, but more sites were needed.

In 1959, the Atomic Energy Commission designated several specific ocean sites for atomic dumping. Radioactive waste products were piling up quickly in vaults and needed to be disposed of before they became a problem in populated areas. A site 185 miles west-southwest of Long Beach was one of the areas chosen and for a while, it looked like atomic waste products from all nuclear installations in the 11 Western states would be dumped into the Pacific Ocean off the Southland. The government assured everyone the process was safe: radioactive products would be packed in drums, and then weighed down with concrete several inches thick.

The drums were designed to drop to 2,000 fathoms – an ocean bottom more than two miles below the surface of the Pacific. At first, the AEC planned to use the Navy to do the dumping, instead, they decided to license private companies to do the job. It was when Long Beach citizens found out that Coastwise Marine Disposal Company, at 2100 W. 15th Street, had gotten one of these contracts that trouble started.

Radioactive waste materials, too hot to handle as normal refuse, were being trucked to the heart of Long Beach’s northwest industrial section from nuclear facilities throughout the west. When the warehouse became so loaded with drums of radioactive materials that the stockpile overflowed into the warehouse yard people began to get concerned. When counted, it was found that 6,000 containers were waiting to be dumped at sea.

Long Beach officials decided to rescind the company’s business license, which it had gladly given in September 1959, and sent them back their $21 business license fee. The company was told to close up shop and get their A-waste out of town. Coastwise refused and Long Beach police blockaded the Coastwise yard, stopping a caravan of trucks bearing waste from Livermore.

On January 13, 1960, the city used its police power to create 13 temporary radioactive waste storage “centers” – all truck trailers parked on a northwest Long Beach street for an indefinite stay. The trucks were loaded with 728 cement-encased drums of waste from a Livermore laboratory. Now, instead of just one A-waste disposal center to watch there were 14. Coastwise could have unloaded the 13 trucks in a warehouse behind locked gates but the city refused the trucks entry, dispatching three police cruisers to guard the vehicles.

Meanwhile, the AEC gave Coastwise a clean bill of health and praised Boswell for his safety program. It was costing Boswell $2600 a day until the trucks were unloaded and he would lose $250,000 in contracts if the City of Long Beach shut him down. Despite assurances by the AEC regarding safety, the city stuck to its decision.

On January 15, 1960, police authorized the trucks to unload 728 drums on a remote section of Pier A. A 24-hour guard was placed on them at Coastwise’s expense. On January 26, 1960, the drums were allowed to be loaded by Coastwise for dumping at sea. Then court actions began.

Coastwise officials testified they had applied for an AEC license to dispose of A-waste in June 1959. No one from the city had protested since the AEC had high standards of safety with regard to the handling of nuclear waste. In September 1959, the city issued Coastwise a business license. Coastwise was inspected by the Fire Department in October. No complaint was filed, nor was there a complaint from the City Health Department. Suddenly, however, the operation became a “potential hazard” four months later. Why? Coastwise neighbors.

Area residents didn’t buy owner Robert Boswell’s claim that the containerized waste wasn’t dangerous. If it wasn’t dangerous why did they have danger signs on the barrels and dump it 185 miles out at sea? Besides, Eugene Field Elementary School was just down the street as were numerous meat-packing businesses. What would the effect of even a small amount of radiation have on the food supply and students?

Others, such as Long Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce president Marvin H. Cheeks were appalled at the city’s treatment of Coastwise claiming city councilmen obviously had stirred up radioactive hysteria to win votes, some even appearing on television which was calculated to create mass hysteria.

On March 19, 1960, the Superior Court issued a restraining order against the City of Long Beach and ordered city hall to validate Coastwise’s business license. The following day Coastwise received its first shipment of radioactive waste since January.

On March 26, 1960, a passerby on 15th Street heard a tremendous explosion and saw a 55-gallon metal drum shoot 50 feet into the air. Coastwise said an unknown chemical had been dumped into the empty drum and it reacted when water touched it. Owner Robert Boswell claimed it was sabotage, attributed to pranksters. Neighbors didn’t think it was a prank when the drum ricocheted off the roof of the Coastwise plant, then bounced onto the roof above a neighbor’s bedroom before falling on a driveway. Boswell told the press his company used no chemicals, and all the drums were empty. The mystery was who dumped the chemical in the drum, and why?

Boswell later changed his mind as to who he thought was behind the explosion. It was no prank. He was sure Councilman Pat Ahern, his harshest critic, was behind the explosion. Boswell also criticized Long Beach newspapers for their unfair treatment of the company. The day before the blast the Press-Telegram reported Boswell had signed up to manage the campaign of city council candidate Ana Marie Peterson, who sought to out the incumbent in the 3rd District. Newspaper headlines told how Boswell hoped to dump the whole city council.

A few days later NBC television decided to see if the Atomic Energy Commission was right in stating a radium-dial watch gave off more radiation than one of Coastwise’s atomic-waste drums. It did. Watch reading: .5 milliroetgens. Atomic-waste drums: .05. All was reported nationwide on the Huntley-Brinkley Report.

At a hearing held in May 1960, Boswell testified how the City of Long Beach forced Coastwise to violate some AEC rules. Boswell stated the majority of violations occurred in January when the city impounded 13 truckloads of atomic waste on Long Beach streets. The trucks were parked on open streets for three days under a police guard. AEC rules forbid holding up A-waste shipments. His testimony was for naught. In December 1960 his license was rejected by federal authorities.

On February 2, 1961, the Atomic Energy Commission issued orders closing Boswell’s Coastwise Marine Disposal plant claiming drums containing waste were not properly labeled and the company was guilty of processing waste with higher radiation levels than regulations permitted. Coastwise was given 30 days to dispose of the waste, but the company declared bankruptcy.

A San Pedro firm, California Salvage, its competition eliminated, petitioned the AEC to remove the drums. The Atomic Energy Commission agreed and California Salvage moved the 3,000 drums of radioactive waste from Coastwise’s facilities and peeled off a layer of topsoil. The waste was trucked to Utah for underground disposal. Browning Automatic Forklift, took over the site at 2100 W. 15th Street in August 1961, after exhaustive tests by the AEC showed the site was free of radioactive waste.

Since 1993 dumping nuclear waste into the sea has been banned by international treaties. However, between 1946 and 1970, 2942 units had been disposed of in the Atlantic, and 554 in the Pacific, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. One has to wonder what the repercussions will be to the environment in the future.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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