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EPA Official Fields Questions at Toxic Site


A high-level official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has assured residents of a toxics-plagued neighborhood near Torrance that the agency is taking their health and environmental concerns seriously.

EPA Assistant Administrator Elliott Laws visited the neighborhood Saturday to discuss two nearby chemical waste sites that have stirred fears since the recent discovery of chunks of the banned pesticide DDT in two families' yards.

Laws met with residents in a verdant garden lined with red and yellow lilies. Its peacefulness belied the fact that DDT was found only a few doors away and that waste pits containing cancer-causing benzene sit directly north of the back alley.

And although the setting was tranquil, the conversation was not.

Residents challenged Laws to explain why the federal government has not conducted tests to assure that residents of West 204th Street are not being sickened by toxic substances at the two nearby sites: one a former DDT factory that is now a Superfund site, the other the former location of a World War II-era synthetic rubber plant.

Some neighbors fear the sites may be causing nausea, dizziness, vomiting and rashes, and they complain that few people can afford expensive medical screening to determine if chemicals are to blame.

"A lot of people here don't have the money to go to private doctors," one resident told Laws, who heads the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. In turn, Laws promised that he would contact other federal agencies to see if testing could be arranged.

The problem of how to deal with health concerns at Superfund sites has long prompted controversy, because the EPA focuses primarily on site cleanup. An EPA spokesman said that Laws already has discussed the general problem with Dr. Philip R. Lee, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey), who helped arrange Laws' visit, promised residents Saturday that she will make sure their concerns are heard in Washington.

"Whatever are the appropriate medical tests should be done right now," Harman said. She also suggested that officials study some kind of buyout for residents, citing the high cost of moving residents temporarily.

The EPA has moved 33 families to hotels during the investigation of the buried DDT, and some residents are calling on the federal government to relocate them permanently.

However, Laws said Saturday that the EPA cannot make a decision on permanent relocation--a step the agency has never taken at a Superfund site in California--until it has conducted extensive testing.

"Don't feel that because we're taking time, we've forgotten about you," Laws added.

Accompanying Laws on Saturday were half a dozen officials from the EPA's regional office in San Francisco as well as Harman and a representative from the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In the 204th Street neighborhood, the federal government is spending $1.7 million to test soil, household air and tap water, with results expected later this year.

The agency's work is complicated by the fact that the street lies alongside not one, but two, toxic chemical sites so contaminated that they merit federal attention.

The former DDT-manufacturing Montrose Chemical Corp., now a vacant lot, is northwest of the street. And directly to the north is the Del Amo Study Area, once home to a synthetic rubber factory operated by Shell Oil Co. and the Dow Chemical Co., among others. Most of the area is now an industrial park.

Montrose is on the federal Superfund list of the nation's 1,200 most hazardous toxic sites, and Del Amo is a Superfund nominee.

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