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EPA Officials Under Fire in Contaminated Neighborhood : Environment: Residents pose tough questions about DDT and other chemicals found in and around yards near Torrance.

March 24, 1994|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Angered by news of back-yard DDT contamination, neighbors of two toxic waste sites near Torrance pelted environmental officials Tuesday with dozens of questions about what chemicals might lurk near their homes.

Some blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what they called poor communication and inaction.

"We're not brain-dead down here. We realize you're not doing anything," Jessie Frame snapped at EPA officials during the public meeting, which drew more than 120 people to the Halldale Avenue School auditorium.

In response, the agency provided a lengthy accounting of years of testing of ground water, soil and air in and around the two sites: the former Montrose Chemical Corp. facility, a federal Superfund site, and the nearby Del Amo proposed Superfund site.

Most of those tests showed chemical levels at safe limits in the neighborhood south of the two sites, officials said.

But it was the most recent tests, which turned up mysteriously high levels of DDT in two back yards along West 204th Street in an unincorporated area east of Torrance, that residents asked about again and again. They were told that the yards of up to 100 homes would be tested to make sure the DDT is not widespread.

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When the meeting ended with many questions unanswered, officials promised to return soon for another meeting.

"I know you're frustrated. Bear with us. We are trying to do something," said John Blevins, the EPA section chief who oversees cleanup at both Montrose and Del Amo, which are southwest of the intersection of the Harbor and San Diego freeways.

Any assessment of potential health effects is complicated by the West 204th Street neighborhood lying alongside not one but two toxic waste sites, each with its own set of chemicals and problems.

DDT was manufactured from 1947 to 1982 at the Montrose site, northwest of the intersection of Normandie Avenue and Del Amo Boulevard. Based on surface soil tests in nearby residential areas in the mid-1980s, environmental officials concluded that DDT levels did not pose a threat to public health.

The new soil tests this winter uncovered DDT concentrations of 245 parts per million in one back yard and 606 parts per million in another, considerably higher than the 100 parts per million considered safe. In response, the EPA plans to excavate about 8,000 cubic feet of tainted soil from the two yards early next month and says it will relocate four families for up to two weeks while the work is done. The source of the DDT is unknown.

Once used widely as a pesticide, DDT was banned for most uses in the United States in 1972. DDT exposure can affect the nervous system and is suspected of causing cancer.

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The second property stirring concern, the 280-acre Del Amo site, is bounded roughly by 190th Street at the north, the Harbor Freeway at the east, 204th Street at the south and Normandie Avenue at the west. The site was once home to a World War II-era synthetic rubber manufacturing plant, built by the U.S. government and operated by Shell Oil Co., Dow Chemical Co. and other companies. Shell bought the plant and operated it from 1955 to 1969. It was then shut down, sold and dismantled, and the land has been developed commercially.

The Del Amo Pits area, part of the larger site, was used for dumping waste materials and sits directly north of houses on West 204th Street.

Benzene, a known carcinogen, has been found deep in the waste pits and in shallow ground water 60 to 90 feet beneath the Del Amo site.

EPA official Tom Dunkelman, saying the tainted water is not a source of drinking water, told residents Tuesday, "The drinking water in your home is safe."

The EPA is preparing to release a cleanup plan for the Del Amo Pits area sometime this spring. The six alternatives being considered include placing a protective covering over the waste, at an estimated cost of $3.7 million, or completely excavating the waste, at a cost of $83 million.

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Cynthia Babich, organizer of a community group called the Del Amo Action Committee, said residents want the waste removed completely and are collecting signatures on petitions supporting excavation. She lambasted EPA officials for what she called their insensitivity to concerns about possible health effects.

"I think it is much more serious than they let us believe," she said.

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