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Officials Have No Plans to Comply With Clean Air Act

December 31, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Even though today's deadline for cities to meet federal clean-air standards has been extended by Congress for eight months, local officials say the reprieve will not bring them any closer to compliance.

Ventura County, which would have faced penalties beginning Dec. 31 for failing to reach guidelines set by the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, continues to fall shy of those standards and, in fact, has no plan for ever reaching them, local officials say.

"There's still no way," said Bill Mount, manager of planning and evaluation for the county's Air Pollution Control District. "We aren't throwing up our hands, and saying we're giving up, but . . . we are getting near the bottom of the bucket."

The reprieve, approved by Congress and signed by President Reagan last week, stops until Aug. 31, 1988, the imposition by the Environmental Protection Agency of any penalties against the county and the other 50 to 60 jurisdictions nationwide not in compliance with federal standards.

Those sanctions probably will consist of a ban on new industries that produce more than 100 tons a year of pollutants, EPA officials said, although the agency can impose more stringent penalties if it determines that local air-quality districts are not making "good faith" efforts.

Richard Grow, an EPA program manager in San Francisco, agreed that the August deadline would not be met by the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, which has developed an inadequate plan for meeting the guidelines, he said.

"There are a number of areas where we really want to see improvements," Grow said. "But we're trying to work with Ventura. We feel, so far, they are making reasonable efforts."

Lack of Patience

Some environmentalists, however, have demonstrated less patience with the process.

The Environmental Defense Center, a Santa Barbara law firm representing Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, has threatened to sue the EPA if the federal agency does not enforce clean-air standards in Ventura County when the deadline arrives.

In a Dec. 18 letter, the environmental coalition accused the EPA of perpetuating an "illegal policy of Clean Air Act non-enforcement" that, if continued, will cause county residents to "suffer from unhealthy air quality well into the next century."

Said Marc Chytilo, a staff attorney for the group: "What really bothers me is that they're unable to produce a plan that will even predict that there will be an attainment date sometime in the future."

Local air-quality officials, however, say that such criticism ignores the sizable gains that have been made in the county over the last decade.

Although peak ozone levels in the county last year of .19 parts per million over a one-hour period exceeded federal standards of .12 parts per million, it represented a significant improvement over highs of .29 in 1973, officials said.

Similarly, first-stage ozone alerts have dropped from 25 in 1973 to none since Oct. 20, 1983, they said.

Ozone, the main constituent of smog, in low concentrations can damage vegetation. It is responsible for annual California crop losses of $300 million, according to a recent report by the state Air Resources Board.

Lung Damage

In higher concentrations, it can irritate the respiratory tract and eventually damage lung tissue.

Since 1979, the number of days a year on which federal ozone standards were exceeded has been reduced from about 60 to 29.

"We have done a lot," Mount said. "It's getting to where there aren't that many controls left that we can place . . . We're going to be having to talk about some fairly radical things if we're going to attain the standard in the county."

One drastic move could entail the formation of Indirect Source Review, a plan that would give the air-quality district veto power over virtually all development in the county. District officials, however, say they are not eager to adopt such sweeping tactics.

More realistic, they say, is the Air Quality Management Plan being prepared by the district that contains enough added technological controls to continue lowering ozone levels through the mid-1990s. But even so, they concede, growth projected for the county over the next decade is expected to negate those gains by the year 2000.

"There will be just too many damn automobiles in the county," Mount said. "It's really just going to come down to people changing their life styles."

Even sanctions handed down by the EPA are not expected to significantly curb ozone levels in the county.

Although the federal agency is prepared to put a ban on the construction of firms that pollute more than 100 tons of reactive organic compounds a year, those industries, such as power plants and garbage incinerators, rarely locate in Ventura County, anyway, Mount said.

Only six industrial facilities in the county produce more than 100 tons of those pollutants, he said.

Provided that local officials continue to make reasonable efforts to reduce pollution, EPA officials say, there are no plans to apply the more stringent penalties, which could include the revocation of federal highway or sewer funds.

"All along, we've been speaking in terms of, 'You need to adopt this rule or that rule, or else we'll be finding that you are not making reasonable efforts,' " Grow said. "But Ventura, we've found, is working very hard."

For local environmentalists, however, the EPA's bark could use a little more bite.

"We're just a match held under the EPA's foot," Chytilo said. "Hopefully, someday, we'll strike a nerve."

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