Local environmentalists hailed a proposed settlement reached this week that will give the Environmental Protection Agency two years to order strict new air quality regulations for Ventura County.
Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, the environmental group that sued the EPA last February, said the lawsuit was necessary because county officials had been unable to come up with a plan that eventually would have brought the area into compliance with the 1970 federal Clean Air Act.
"This is a big victory," said Russ Baggerly, a spokesman for the Ojai group. "Not only will we have a plan that demonstrates attainment for the first time in Ventura County's history, but I think we have actually changed a number of attitudes about air quality. It is something that has to be taken seriously now."
The settlement, which still must be signed by U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp, calls for the EPA to develop a plan under which the county--whose ozone levels are ranked among the worst in the nation--could achieve compliance with federal standards.
The EPA, which has the authority to impose a wide range of sanctions to force compliance, said it has been reluctant to do so in the past because county officials were making what they called "good faith" efforts toward attaining federal standards.
But Al Zemsky, a spokesman in the EPA's Western Regional Office in San Francisco, said the settlement will compel the agency to take a harder look at regulations in Ventura County.
"We have to take a stronger position," Zemsky said. "Obviously, that will mean stronger controls and stronger measures."
EPA officials said they do not know the exact decrease in emissions necessary for the county to achieve compliance, nor would they predict what measures might be taken to force those decreases to be made.
Zemsky added, however, that the agency hopes to work closely with the county Air Pollution Control District during the 26 months in which it must develop a plan.
"Hopefully, their input on the appropriate measures will be the basis of our plan," he said.
Richard H. Baldwin, head of the county Air Pollution Control District, said local officials had made significant progress in reducing harmful emissions. But, he added, there are some controls, such as regulating pesticides, that the federal government could more easily impose.
"There are some things the EPA can do better," Baldwin said. "But we're going to be working very closely with them to develop control measures that make sense for Ventura County."
Although peak levels of ozone decreased from 0.29 parts per million in 1973 to 0.19 in 1987, they still exceeded federal levels of 0.12.
Since 1979, the days each year on which federal ozone standards have been exceeded have dropped in number from about 60 to 22 last year. No first-stage ozone alerts have occurred since Oct. 20, 1983.