Confronted with growing neighborhood unrest, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has temporarily postponed its excavation of DDT-tainted soil from two back yards near Torrance, and officials say it is possible that the agency will agree to move more families during the project.
Central to the dispute is a community group's request that the EPA relocate up to 17 families while the soil is removed. Three families already were moved temporarily from their homes to hotels Monday at federal expense. Two families have refused to sign agreements allowing the EPA to do the work.
Although the excavation has been planned for weeks, neighborhood fears increased sharply with the news last week that DDT levels in the two yards along West 204th Street east of Torrance city limits were more than seven times higher than previous tests showed--and as much as 45 times higher than levels considered safe.
"We're talking about a whole new ballgame here. More testing needs to be done before they start digging that up," said community leader Cynthia Babich, who as of Wednesday night still had not signed the agreement because of questions about the project's safety.
Babich's back yard is one of two scheduled to be excavated because high levels of the banned pesticide were found in them this winter.
The EPA had hoped to break ground for the two-week project by Thursday but now says the work will be postponed at least until next week.
Babich said she and other residents negotiated a truce with the EPA on Wednesday that calls for the project to be halted while the federal agency addresses community concerns about safety. Two key issues, she said, are whether the EPA will agree to relocate more families and to build what she called a "wind-screen" around the project to contain the DDT-contaminated soil during the work.
Guillermo Aguirre, Babich's next-door neighbor, who also has refused to sign an agreement with the EPA, on Wednesday praised the agency for postponing the project and for what he called a more cooperative stance.
Virginia Donohue, an EPA spokeswoman, said it is "perfectly possible" that more families may be relocated to hotels temporarily but that no final decisions have been made.
The EPA also has agreed to the concept of building a wind-screen but must first study the screen's design and technical aspects, Donohue said.
The project is being postponed, not only because two families have not signed agreements, but because of neighbors' questions, Donohue added.
Once a widely used pesticide, DDT was banned for most uses in the United States in 1972. It damages the reproduction of wildlife and is suspected of causing cancer.
Federal officials recommend taking precautions when DDT concentrations exceed 100 parts per million, and they consider 260 p.p.m. grounds for immediate cleanup. Based on earlier testing in the mid-1980s, the EPA had concluded that DDT levels in the area did not threaten public health. But the agency decided to remove the soil after tests this winter detected unusually high DDT levels--245 p.p.m. in Babich's back yard and 606 p.p.m. in Aguirre's yard.
Tests made public last Friday revealed even higher levels of the pesticide, reaching 4,509 p.p.m. in an area near Babich's back yard.
EPA officials have said the excavation does not pose a health hazard and that the three families have been relocated so that they are not inconvenienced by the excavation work.
Although agency experts say the DDT found on West 204th Street may simply be an isolated deposit, or "hot spot," some residents suspect the substance may have traveled from the nearby site of the former Montrose Chemical Corp., where the pesticide was manufactured from 1947 to 1982. Montrose is now a federal Superfund site.