Along a stretch of South Kenwood Avenue, red banners cover some frontyard fences and shout in white letters: "Buy Us Out."
This is not the usual real estate offer.
The neighborhood in unincorporated Los Angeles--east of Torrance and south of Gardena--is locked in a struggle with the federal government over how to respond to the DDT ground contamination that environmental regulators say originated from a chemical plant three blocks away.
DDT, which was used as a pesticide, is considered a dangerous toxin. High-level, long-term exposure among agricultural workers has produced liver problems, infertility and cancer. The levels are considered generally low on South Kenwood, but still of concern.
Many homeowners on the west side of South Kenwood want a developer or the federal government to buy their homes, instead of proceeding with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan to "gut out" 25 front lawns starting next month. It is estimated that the voluntary EPA plan will cost at least $2 million and take about six weeks. Residents can relocate until the soil is replaced.
Lydia Valdez, a 15-year homeowner on South Kenwood, sewed the red banners and gave them to her neighbors. She feels vulnerable and wants the homes bought and torn down.
"We bought this house to live out our lives," said Valdez, who also owns the house across the street, which she rents to her daughter. "We want to run from here, but financially we can't."
The EPA says that the soil removal will work on a voluntary basis and that some homeowners have already signed on. Others, however, believe the plan is not complete, leaving out backyards, excluding the street's east side and allowing low levels of DDT to remain. Others fear the exclusion of some homes will hurt property values.
According to the EPA, the contamination came in storm water drainage from the Montrose Chemical Corp. factory. The 13-acre DDT plant operated from 1947 to 1982; it was then closed and the land sealed with concrete. It is a so-called Superfund hazardous waste site.
The Montrose company denies responsibility for the contamination on South Kenwood. The EPA and the company are awaiting a federal court ruling on that point.
"We do not believe that any DDT that is at issue in this removal action was something that emanated from our site," said Karl Lytz, a Montrose attorney.
Jeff Dhont, EPA's regional project manager, said the existing contamination spread when a storm water ditch was replaced in the 1960s and '70s with underground pipe drains.
EPA officials took more than 1,000 soil samples between 1999 and 2000. Dhont said some frontyard soils along South Kenwood have very low levels of DDT and contain, in general, between 1 and 100 parts per million, with the highest in one frontyard at 6,700 ppm. He said levels between 1 and 10 ppm exist in most urban environments.
The area's highest DDT concentrations were found in soils deeper than 1 1/2 feet, and so the EPA will dig as deep as 6 feet, then sample further. When all that is done, levels will not exceed 10 ppm in South Kenwood's soil, Dhont said.
According to the EPA, soils with concentrations between 1.7 and 170 ppm pose "very low health risks" even for someone who "eats soil every day for 30 years." But, Dhont said, the EPA wants to be cautious.
South Kenwood is a neighborhood of contrasts. Some houses are two stories with large frontyards; others cram close to the sidewalk and have residences to the rear. Some have manicured lawns with rosebushes and fruit trees; others look run-down, with cars parked atop overgrown grass.
For its residents, the discovery of the DDT-contaminated soil brings back bad memories.
Nearly eight years ago, bowling-ball-sized chunks of DDT with concentrations up to 700,000 ppm were found on the properties of nearby West 204th Street homes. Terrified residents asked for permanent relocation, and 63 homes were bought by the Shell Oil Co. to expedite the cleanup of the company-owned waste pits near the neighborhood. Those houses were bulldozed, and a park, with new soil, is being created.
On South Kenwood, DDT levels are lower, and there's no company willing to buy them out.
Though temporary relocation will be offered to the 25 affected homeowners, Dhont said the level of contamination does not meet the criteria for a buyout. But many South Kenwood residents don't believe the EPA will bring DDT levels down to what they consider to be "healthy levels."
Johanna Bartran said she and her husband, Jonathan, moved into their home and started an organic garden in their backyard. She abstained from using pesticides because she wanted a healthy environment.
"It's a total nightmare," Bartran said of the contamination, pausing to collect herself. "We moved in [wanting] the American dream."
However, other South Kenwood residents, like Joann St. Onge, are satisfied with the EPA cleanup plans, which include new landscaping. "I don't have any concerns. . . . As I understand, once they do the digging, they're going to test it again. That should be the final proof that they got it all," said Onge, a 40-year homeowner on South Kenwood.
Cynthia Babich lived in the contaminated 204th Street neighborhood and one year later started the Del Amo Action Committee to advise and inform area residents on how to explore their options in the case of a similar situation.
Babich said she has a petition for buyouts with 19 signatures out of the 25 South Kenwood homeowners, among them about seven who refused the excavation.
Resident Manuel Flores, whose West 204th Street house is not included in the 25-home cleanup, said his property value is going to suffer from the exclusion. If selling it, he will have to disclose that his home is near DDT contamination and that his land was not tested or cleaned.
He recently got two home appraisals--one with full disclosure of the area DDT and another without. There was a price difference of about $115,000, he said.
Valdez said she thinks of her children and grandchildren, who live across the street and have played in the frontyards from which DDT will be excavated. She believes nothing short of demolition will solve the problem.
"It's not livable," she said. "It shouldn't be."
Neighbors have appealed to Rep. Jane Harman, the Democrat who represents the area and who was instrumental in the buyout on 204th Street. At least for now, Harmon supports the EPA plan
"A few years back, I dealt with 204th Street. The right answer that clearly reflected the views of health professionals and residents [was] relocation," Harman said. "This time, health officials who have investigated and the majority of residents want cleanup."
For South Kenwood, Harman's view is: "Try cleanup; monitor it closely. If it proves to be inadequate, move to relocation."