A construction ban on major polluters will almost certainly be imposed in Ventura County in October because of failure to meet federal clean-air standards, the Environmental Protection Agency said this week.
The ban, similar to one imposed Wednesday in the Los Angeles area, would prohibit construction or expansion of large pollution sources, such as refineries and chemical plants.
Officials for the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, however, called the sanctions largely symbolic because there are no plans for such construction, and regulations already in place make it costly for polluting industries to consider building here.
Moreover, the ban might not be imposed if Congress acts soon to extend the deadline for local governments to meet federal clean-air standards. A House bill to reauthorize the Clean Air Act would extend the deadline by 10 years, and a Senate bill would extend it by 20 years.
Little Impact Foreseen
"It would have little real impact in Ventura County," said Richard H. Baldwin, the county air-pollution district's top officer. "But I don't think anyone likes it. It implies that you're not doing your job, and we are doing a credible job here."
Local environmentalists, who sued the EPA earlier this year to force the agency to impose even more stringent restrictions on the county, said the construction ban was a step in the right direction.
"We're not interested in hurting the county or stopping necessary projects," said Stan Greene, president of Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "We're interested in cleaning up the air. If this is directed toward that purpose, we're all for it."
However, Greene said, more drastic measures need to be taken in the county, which has been unable to develop an air-quality plan that would meet federal standards or even predict attainment at any point in the future.
His group's lawsuit, which is pending in U.S. District Court, calls for the EPA to develop its own plan for cleaning the county's air, ranked fourth worst in the country for ozone levels.
"We're really asking that everything be done that's possible," Greene said. "Not just what's convenient or politically expedient."
But the EPA, which has the authority to impose a range of strict penalties and construction guidelines to force a cleanup, says it is unwilling to do so as long as Ventura County continues making reasonable efforts.
"We don't want to push a local jurisdiction into doing something they cannot do," said Al Zemsky, a spokesman in EPA's western regional office in San Francisco. "Ventura is making reasonable efforts. We would rather let them make their own decisions, rather than stepping in saying, 'Here's how it's going to be done.' "
Local officials point to the sizable gains made in air quality over the last 15 years as proof of their efforts.
Peak levels of ozone, a respiratory irritant and the main constituent of smog, have decreased from highs of 0.29 parts per million in 1973 to last year's peak of 0.19, officials said. Federal standards are set at 0.12 parts per million.
Since 1979, the number of days a year on which the federal standard was exceeded has been reduced from about 60 to 29. Similarly, first-stage ozone alerts have dropped from 25 in 1973 to none since Oct. 20, 1983, officials said.
"I want people to understand we haven't been sitting here with our hands tied behind our backs doing nothing," Baldwin said. "There's just no silver bullet available."
The ban planned by the EPA would prohibit construction of factories that produce more than 100 tons a year of volatile organic compounds, the precursor to ozone. County officials say there are six such plants now operating in the county, and no plans to build others.
In addition, the ban would block expansion of any existing factory if the modification would produce more than 40 tons a year of pollutants. No such expansions have been proposed either, county officials said.
Ventura County will be one of 14 urban areas around the country that face such sanctions, EPA officials said. The sanctions are a mandatory penalty for not meeting the Dec. 31, 1987, deadline for complying with the federal Clean Air Act of 1970.
A moratorium approved last year by Congress that blocked imposition of those penalties for eight months expired Wednesday.