The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared operators of a long-closed South Bay chemical factory in violation of an order to dispose of DDT-laced soil dug from a nearby neighborhood, saying the company has declined to accept responsibility for the soil.
Federal officials said Wednesday that they may go to court to try to force Montrose Chemical Corp. to dispose of the DDT discovered in the ground behind two homes near Torrance this spring. Montrose once operated a major DDT factory less than half a mile from the homes.
An attorney for Montrose said the firm will not immediately comply with the order because it believes the federal government has failed to prove that the factory was responsible for the DDT contamination.
"We must continue to disagree with the EPA's conclusions," said Karl S. Lytz of Latham & Watkins, the Los Angeles-based law firm representing Montrose. He did not, however, rule out the possibility that Montrose may eventually dispose of the soil.
In response, an EPA attorney said that unless the standoff is resolved in the next few days, the agency may go to court.
EPA assistant regional counsel John Lyons said it is rare for a company at a Superfund site not to comply with an EPA order. The Montrose site is on the federal Superfund list of 1,200 of the nation's most hazardous toxic waste sites.
Meanwhile, Montrose's concerns pose a quandary for federal officials, who must decide what to do with more than 1,000 tons of tainted soil now sitting in a Long Beach storage yard under an emergency permit that expires next month.
The EPA on June 21 ordered Montrose to dispose of the soil, which officials describe as so toxic that it must be incinerated at an estimated cost of $2 million or more.
That order culminated a federal investigation into the source of the chunks of DDT--some as large as a foot across--that were found mixed with fill soil behind two homes on West 204th Street in an unincorporated area east of Torrance. The government already has spent more than $1 million to remove the soil and to temporarily relocate 33 families, and it is studying whether to relocate families permanently.
DDT is a suspected human carcinogen that can affect the nervous system.
EPA officials say they are convinced that the DDT chunks came from the now-demolished Montrose factory, where the pesticide was produced from 1947 to 1982.
Tests of the excavated soil found DDT in such high concentrations that investigators concluded it is technical-grade DDT, and they report that Montrose was the only plant in California producing that grade.
Soil tests also turned up a second chemical, a waste product of the pesticide lindane, which was manufactured on the Montrose site from 1956 to 1963, according to the EPA. Investigators are still looking into how the DDT got buried in the yards.
Montrose's attorney dismisses the soil tests as insufficient.
"In fact, all evidence cited by EPA is entirely circumstantial," Lytz wrote in a four-page letter to the agency dated Tuesday. He lists other potential sources of DDT, such as a second pesticide plant nearby, spraying by residents and mosquito abatement districts and a nursery once located in the neighborhood that reportedly sold technical-grade DDT.
EPA's Lyons counters that the second pesticide plant did not make DDT. In light of the large amounts of high-potency DDT found in the yards, he said, the assertion that it came from a small facility is "fanciful at best."
Montrose has asked that the soil remain in storage so that the firm can pursue its own investigation and study solutions. In fact, Lytz says the firm has not been granted permission to conduct its own surveys of the soil--tests that the EPA says could cause logistical and safety problems at the storage facility.