At first, federal officials spoke cautiously about the white chunks unearthed in a South Bay back yard. This mysterious material, they said, could be something as harmless as construction debris.
But just to make sure, they shipped a few clumps to a laboratory for testing. And on the May morning after the results came back, the white chunks were suddenly a hot news story.
Television vans jammed the alley leading to the excavation site. Reporters took turns holding up a vial of the material as cameras zoomed in.
It was a startling find: DDT in virtually solid form had been dug from the yard of an unsuspecting West 204th Street couple, and no one--not the residents, not their neighbors, not even the experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--could say where it came from.
"It's scary. Stuff like this should not be happening. This is the 20th Century," said Robin Hatch, 30, a mother of two who lives only three doors from where the DDT was found. What makes this environmental tale so riveting is that it defies an easy explanation. Chunks of DDT as big as bowling balls simply are not supposed to be buried in yards where one resident grew tomatoes and another held family barbecues. In a society that has grown ever more wary of pesticides--even to the point of diligently scrubbing its organic vegetables--the back-yard discovery on West 204th Street seems like an American nightmare.
EPA officials say they have no evidence that the chunks came from a DDT factory once located nearby. Yet the drama is a disconcerting reminder that DDT's legacy looms large in the South Bay.
For years, federal officials and consultants have been quietly measuring the DDT content of neighborhood soil, attic dust, ground water, storm drains, and even crabs and fish.
Their mission: to analyze the effects of the DDT manufacturing plant operated by Montrose Chemical Corp. from 1947 to 1982 on Normandie Avenue, just east of Torrance in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The task resembles some long but engrossing detective novel, with numerous plot twists and many chapters still unwritten. It illustrates the Gargantuan job that government agencies, companies and residents confront as they try to identify and clean up industrial pollution.
Montrose became one of the world's leading DDT producers in an era when the white powder was hailed as a magic potion.
But as Americans' enthusiasm for the pesticide cooled, Montrose's fortunes faltered. Today, the former factory site is one of 1,200 on the federal Superfund list of the most hazardous toxic-waste sites in the United States.
Its impact has been felt far beyond the 13-acre site, now a vacant lot. Thousands of pounds of DDT are trapped in sediment inside a local sewer line, and still more pollutes water underground.
Health experts emphasize that although DDT is a suspected carcinogen and, in large doses, can affect the human nervous system, most deposits detected around the Montrose site are too small to threaten human health.
Besides, there are only a few routes by which residents could be exposed to the DDT, health officials say. Contaminated soil could be eaten by children. Adults could consume home-grown produce sprinkled with tainted soil or eat DDT-laden eggs laid by back-yard chickens. People could ingest attic dust, which experts say is unlikely. Or they could eat DDT-contaminated fish, which is one reason the state recommends against eating white croaker caught at places such as White's Point and Los Angeles Harbor.
Government experts say they have no evidence that such exposure has caused health problems in the area. Still, some residents wonder if the pesticide could be the source of the rashes, nausea, dizziness and aching joints that they say are prevalent in the West 204th Street neighborhood.
The outpouring of public concern in recent weeks has lent new urgency to the ongoing federal studies of how DDT affected the South Bay environment.
Montrose's neighbors say they just want the government to hurry in its cleanup efforts.
"It's not just hurting human beings. It's hurting our planet," said Hatch. "I want them to have whoever is responsible to clean it up."
The goal of the 14-year-old federal Superfund program is supposed to be exactly that: to pinpoint which companies polluted a site and require them to investigate and, as much as possible, finance the cleanup.
At Montrose, the scope of that project is enormous.
To date, Montrose and its insurance companies have spent at least $17 million for studies and initial remediation, and that's only the beginning. A Montrose study estimates that cleanup costs for ground water alone could range from $30 million to $359 million. And although the Montrose site was first proposed as a Superfund candidate in 1984, an overall cleanup plan has yet to begin or even be announced.