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EPA to Order Cleanup of Toxic Waste Pits


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will require private firms to spend $9 million to clean up waste pits from a World War II-era synthetic rubber plant near Torrance.

The cleanup of the so-called Del Amo Study Area--hazardous enough to have been proposed for the EPA's Superfund list--would culminate years of soil analyses, health tests on residents, public hearings and legal wrangling.

Scores of neighbors have already been relocated, and the houses will probably be torn down.

Dante Rodriguez, the EPA's Del Amo project director, said the agency will either mandate or negotiate with the responsible firms--primarily Dow Chemical and Shell Oil--to pay for the cleanup. He said the work could be finished in two years.

Residents who have lived near the toxic grab bag of chemicals praised the progress.

"Definitely it is about time," said Dunia Ponce, who lived near the waste pits for years. She was relocated by the EPA in 1994 while the ground was explored for chemicals.

The residents most affected by the cleanup are those living on West 204th Street, a community of modest stucco homes and duplexes flanked by two chemical sites in unincorporated Los Angeles County. To the northwest is the former Montrose Chemical Corp., once a major DDT manufacturer and now a federal Superfund site. And to the north is the Del Amo Study Area.

For more than 40 years, the ground behind the homes on West 204th Street has been filled with a gooey tar-like substance, carcinogenic benzene and naphthalene. Residents have complained of headaches, irritated eyes, rashes and birth defects believed to be caused by vapors and contaminated soil.

Despite years of government study, no substantial financial effort had been made until Thursday to clean up the Del Amo site.

The EPA said it would ask the companies responsible for the contamination to cap the waste pits and clean up contaminated soil from the rubber plant that was operated from 1942 to 1972 by primarily Shell Oil Co. and Dow Chemical Co.

The waste pit area includes three former evaporation ponds and six former disposal pits. Currently, the waste pit area is a vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Beneath some of the pits, contaminated soil extends to the water table 60 feet below.

Although some residents say that more should be done to clean up the soil, Dunia Ponce is realistic. "A lot of people feel a cap is not good enough," said the registered nurse.

"I personally do not see how they are going to be able to dig it out and throw it out somewhere else. We can't decontaminate one area to contaminate another."

The 280 acres that once was a synthetic rubber plant is now mostly an industrial park. But 3.7 acres are covered by waste pits that abut residents' backyards.

The EPA said it will not let any large buildings occupy the Del Amo site once it is cleaned; residents would like to see the area remain open space.

The site has cost the government millions of dollars.

In 1994, the federal government spent $1.7 million to test soil, household air and tap water after DDT was discovered in some of the homes on West 204th Street. It was not known which of the two toxic sites was responsible for the DDT.

Residents were relocated temporarily to local motels and apartments while cleanup of the soil took place, but some never returned to their homes.

The EPA has spent $3.9 million on relocation, government officials said.

Earlier this year, Shell Oil and Dow Chemical agreed to buy 65 homes from the relocated residents. It was the first time in California history that two chemical companies agreed to such a buyout plan near a toxic site.

Bob Frame and his wife, Jessie, are two of the residents who live behind the Del Amo waste pits. For 36 years they have lived in the same house where they raised seven children, but they will soon be relocated.

Bob Frame said he was happy to hear about the cleanup but that he feels the real solution is moving more families from West 204th Street. "[The chemical companies] should pay to relocate more people from here," he said.

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