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EPA Plan to Dig Up DDT Could Close Out Dispute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what would end a lengthy dispute between residents of a DDT-contaminated neighborhood near Torrance and the federal government, “bowling-ball-sized chunks” of the pesticide would be excavated from the area, officials said.

For many residents, removing the material in the 1000 block of 204th Street would mark a milestone in what they say has been a painful journey of illness, loss of property and relocation.

“It will start to heal the community,” said Judy Miller, a member of a neighborhood panel that has worked with the government to find a solution.

In a statement issued last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that “after much community outreach and evaluation of alternatives,” a decision was made to excavate the material and transport it for incineration at an approved disposal site. Officials said the process of removing “bowling-ball-sized chunks of technical-grade DDT” probably will begin next month.

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But some neighborhood activists are angry over how the material would be removed. They contend that digging up and carting away the contaminants would simply transfer the health threat from one neighborhood to another.

“There has got to be a better way to clean up these contaminations,” said Cynthia Babich, director of the Del Amo Action Committee and a former resident of 204th Street.

Babich and her group support “capping,” or filling in and sealing over the contaminated site with concrete, and eventually building a park or senior center.

“It’s been difficult because we don’t have a chemistry background,” she said of her stance on capping the site. “But logically it makes sense. If they put concrete over it, it’s not going to be a threat. It’s not going to go anywhere.”

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DDT was discovered along 204th Street in 1993 and 1994 in the fill material laid down in the backyards of homes built before the 1950s.

The source of the pesticide, EPA officials said, was the nearby 13-acre Montrose Chemical Corp., which manufactured DDT from 1947 until 1982. Tests revealed that DDT was present in nearby sewers, soil and ground water tainted with monochlorobenzene. In 1989, the area, which has been paved with asphalt, was added to the list of 1,200 federal Superfund hazardous waste sites.

The Del Amo waste pit, which is within view of homes on 204th Street, also contributed to the contamination problem, according to the EPA. The pit was part of a 280-acre facility built by the U.S. government to manufacture synthetic rubber during World War II. Ten unlined pits that lie next to 204th Street received waste from the early 1940s to the early 1950s. The area was made a Superfund site in 1991.

Once the DDT was discovered, the companies that at one time operated the facility bought all but four of 65 properties along 204th Street for about $10 million.

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Now that the majority of homes have been demolished, the EPA plans to cooperate with the community on what to build there.

“We’ve made incredible progress with the community groups,” said Mike Montgomery, an EPA section chief. “Three or four years ago, we were at loggerheads.”

Still, Babich and others are concerned that more harm than good may occur.

“DDT dust blew all over the neighborhood when they did the removal last time,” she said about excavations in 1994.

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Babich said there are ways for the EPA to dispose of the waste in a less ecologically harmful manner, such as a fungus that eats DDT or by constructing an on-site treatment facility.

The issue has been discussed at length, said Montgomery. “Can we . . . construct a treatment facility on 204th Street?” he asked. “Our feeling is that for such a small amount of material, it’s really more cost-effective to take it to a treatment center.”

The EPA is considering facilities in Utah and Texas for disposal sites.

But Miller, 53, a resident of the neighborhood for 26 years and a member of the Del Amo Land Use Community Advisory Panel, said she supports the EPA’s decision to excavate and cart the waste out of town.

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“We’ve got enough problems. We don’t need to have this [waste] sitting here. I’m in favor of getting it out of this neighborhood.”

For Miller, capping the site isn’t a good idea. The EPA “said they would seal it up, but you just don’t know,” she said. “Fifty years down the road, I won’t be here, but some kids could be digging around in their yard and come across it.”


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