Leaders on both sides of a five-year legal battle to clean up Ventura County's air are waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will step in and decide if the government is moving fast enough to reduce smog.
The high court is expected to decide Monday whether it will review a 1992 federal court ruling ordering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement a stringent plan to significantly reduce smog in Ventura County within the next few years.
At stake is whether the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District will be allowed to take until the year 2005 to meet federal health standards for pollution, or if the EPA must step in to enforce a more stringent plan with an earlier deadline.
If the justices reject the case, EPA officials will have to move quickly to find new ways to reduce smog in Ventura County, including imposing tighter controls on the use of pesticides and emissions from ships plying the Santa Barbara Channel, officials said.
County officials said other strategies that could be employed include restricting the number of parking spaces to force people to use mass transit, imposing higher parking fees and rationing gas.
"When the court gets into planning, that's what happens," said Richard Baldwin, director of the pollution control district.
But environmentalists say the EPA and the county have not moved quickly enough to reduce the county's smog, rated the ninth worst in the nation.
"For every year that the county does not meet the standards, there are very significant health impacts," said Marc Chytilo, an attorney with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center. "So the sooner they meet those guidelines, the better."
The Environmental Defense Center, representing the Ojai-based Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, sued the EPA in 1988 to force the agency to devise a plan that would bring Ventura County within federal air pollution standards.
The lawsuit stemmed from a requirement that all air pollution control districts demonstrate that their jurisdictions would meet health standards by 1987. Ventura County and three other California districts issued plans that showed air quality would improve, but not enough to meet the standards by 1987.
In a 1989 settlement with environmentalists, the EPA agreed to implement a plan within two years. But as EPA officials were preparing to release the new schedule, a federal court judge ruled that 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act no longer obligated that the EPA get involved.
Citizens to Preserve the Ojai appealed that decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, which reversed the lower court's ruling in July, 1992, and ordered the EPA to implement an "expeditious" air plan for Ventura County. The EPA then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
Federal health standards stipulate that ozone levels, the primary component of smog, should not rise above certain specific levels--0.12 parts per million--more than three days in any three-year period.
Baldwin of the county's Air Pollution Control District said the county has already made great strides toward reaching that goal. The county exceeded the federal standard only 10 times in 1992, compared to 31 days for the same period in 1991. In the preceding 10 years, the county has averaged 51 days a year at the specified unhealthful levels.
County employees are now working on a new air quality plan that is scheduled to come before the county Board of Supervisors for approval next year. They hope the plan will demonstrate how the county can attain the federal pollution standards by 2005, Baldwin said. Any requirement to meet the standards at an earlier date is unrealistic, he said.
For now, the county's Air Pollution Control District has no authority to regulate emissions from pesticides used widely in agriculture, a predominant industry in Ventura County, Baldwin said. And it cannot impose rules on ship traffic off the coast, he said.
The only way the district could significantly reduce air pollution would be to crack down on cars and other vehicles, which generate about half the ozone in Ventura County, Baldwin said.
To meet federal standards, the county would have to consider rationing gas or restricting parking spaces--aggressive policies that Baldwin believes would be too disruptive for most residents.
But the Environmental Defense Center's Chytilo said the federal court's order, if left intact, will force the federal government to help the county control pollution.
The EPA could push for more stringent controls on pesticides and ship traffic, and federal money could pay for mass transit programs such as light rail, electric buses and replacing gas-burning cars with electric vehicles, he said.
"The more resources you bring to solve a problem, the more likely you are going to solve the problem."