Communities dealing with hazardous waste need independent adviser, UCLA engineering professor says

July 10, 2002

Helping a community cope with the fear and chaos accompanying a hazardous waste cleanup project convinced a UCLA engineering professor that people in this position need someone to watch out for their interests.

As a result of his recent efforts on behalf of Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Venice) involving a reclamation project in Torrance, Calif., chemical engineering Professor Yoram Cohen believes that legislation should be enacted requiring independent scientific reviews of environmental investigations and restorations by federal agencies. The goal is to provide affected communities and other stakeholders with independent assessment and information.

"People are frightened," Cohen said. "They've just found out that the land they live on is contaminated. Now there are people coming in and digging up their neighborhood. There is a lack of communication and flow of information among the various agencies and those directly engaged in remediation activities."

In this case, the community is approximately five square blocks in the Del Amo area of Los Angeles where DDT had been found in "concentrations that were alarming," Cohen said. The contamination was the result of production of the pesticide DDT in the area for decades.

As the remediation project got under way, however, "They uncovered at one point essentially what amounted to pure DDT," Cohen said. That is when a frightened community became even more alarmed and Harmon turned to the experts at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Stanford University.

The study, done by Cohen in collaboration with Stanford Professor Perry L. McCarty, also found that although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did an adequate job of cleaning up the area, more could be done. It also suggests ongoing monitoring to ensure that if new construction projects are undertaken, the community will be protected from exposure to DDT. The pesticide may still be present in areas that have not been remediated, but do not pose an exposure risk at present.

Cleanup projects like this require that the contaminated soil be dug out -- even under the houses -- and replaced with clean soil. "In the process, you tear up sidewalks and fences. You have to rebuild those, redo the landscaping," Cohen said.

"I visited the site and was amazed because they actually had houses suspended -- and there was nothing under the house," he said.

By then, the Del Amo Action Committee had already been formed and "an adversarial relationship between the community and the EPA was not helping to ease the community fears," Cohen said.

Up until that time, residents had to rely on the EPA for information. "That's not good enough for the community because even though the EPA has its own community liaisons, they have to put forward the 'party line,'" Cohen said.

"As often is the case, when there is a lack of communication between EPA and the community, suspicion developed," he said.

For example, at one point, neighborhood residents tried to take a duplicate sample from a "hot spot," but were prevented from doing so by EPA officials because the residents lacked the necessary training in hazardous waste sampling. The irony, of course, is they had been living on the same land they were now told they were not qualified to sample.

"The community wanted someone to come in and give them an unbiased opinion," Cohen said. "I think one of the major problems is the lack of communication between EPA and the community. There's a lack of trust," Cohen said.

An independent scientific adviser should be present right at the beginning, according to Cohen. The adviser's "charter would be to make sure the community receives unbiased information," he said.

Cohen and McCarty made several recommendations specific to the Del Amo site. One of their recommendations was that monitoring for contaminants should be done whenever there is any deep excavation in the area.

"The EPA did the best job they could in terms of cleanup. Now, does that mean that area is now clean forever? No," Cohen said. As long as there isn't any major construction that disturbs the soil, "there's no problem," Cohen and McCarty concluded.

However, one of the problems Cohen has observed in the past with hazardous waste sites is that their location is often forgotten. So, "continued monitoring of the area to make sure that it remains healthy and clean is a must," he said.

Another of their recommendations concerns the hazardous material that was removed from the site. Although safely contained, huge piles of contaminated soil can be seen from the neighborhood.

"With all that has happened there, it is imperative that EPA take this soil and put it in a designated permanent landfill and not leave all this material in the community," Cohen said. "They drive by and see all this contaminated material and it is not very conducive for good feelings or healing. It will promote healing to see it taken away," he said.

"As scientists, we often forget about the social implications of what we do," Cohen said. Acting as independent advisers on projects such as these would be an opportunity to change that, he said. "This would be an excellent opportunity for university faculty to use their knowledge to help the public."

University of California - Los Angeles

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