When Ojai area rancher David Dekker awoke one crisp morning earlier this month, he was overtaken by a strange, unwelcome feeling.
High atop Sulphur Mountain, a few hundred yards from the patch of land his family has harvested for half a century, loomed what looked to him like a giant black ball nesting atop an ugly metal scaffold.
"They told us it was going to be an antenna," he said. "Now, I'm not a fanatic, but this thing scares the hell out me."
The imposing steel tower, dubbed "the black orb" by some Ojai Valley residents, represents the federal government's latest effort to upgrade its nationwide weather-forecasting arsenal.
It is a Doppler radar tower that rests on property leased to the government by William and Tina Kee, who own a ranch at 9150 Sulphur Mountain Road. Tina Kee would not comment on the tower when reached at her home Wednesday.
National Weather Service officials say the new radar system, situated on a ridge along Sulphur Mountain Road, is a safe replacement for an aging tower atop the federal building in West Los Angeles.
But Ojai Valley landowners fear that continuing exposure to low-level radiation is too great a risk for them and their families.
"The government tells us we will be safe, but they told us the same thing about asbestos," said David Hedman, an area homeowner who is mobilizing his neighbors to stop the tower from being switched on next month.
"Sure, these systems may be safe now, but will it be safe five years from now?" he asked.
Hedman and others quickly contacted National Weather Service chiefs, local and federal elected officials--anyone who would listen, including a lawyer.
When they confronted Rep. Elton Gallegly, the Simi Valley Republican agreed to sponsor a forum for concerned residents. That meeting is scheduled tonight at 7:30 in the auditorium at Summit Elementary School.
But Hedman said that whatever the weather service scientists tell him tonight, he is not likely to accept the radar installation without a fight.
"Clearly, the federal government has violated the law," he said.
National Weather Service area Manager Jerry McDuffy said the 98-foot tower is perhaps the 30th of 116 planned across the country over a decade-long renovation. He said Ojai Valley residents have had ample opportunity to object to the project.
"We had a groundbreaking ceremony this past September that generated a lot of publicity," he said. "But if they never read the newspaper or look at television . . . what else can we do?"
According to McDuffy, who oversees NWS operations throughout Southern California, the low-level non-ionized radiation emitting from the tower will pose no significant threat to the health of those who live nearby.
It is the same low-risk radiation emitted by microwave ovens and electric shavers, he said.
"There's no way this thing is going to do any damage to anybody," said McDuffy, who will join Gallegly and several government scientists and attorneys at tonight's forum.
Several radiation experts, however, including scientists from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said not enough research has been conducted to warrant any conclusions about the safety or threat of non-ionized radiation.
In reviewing an environmental report on the WSR-88D radar system, the EPA said that weather service analysts ignored certain research and failed to address other health concerns raised by scientists.
"By claiming the (test) results are ambiguous, the authors are biasing an objective reading of the results," EPA scientists said. "The authors of the (NWS report) will make a major error in judgment if they do not incorporate the conclusions of the EPA science advisory board."
Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News magazine, said residents of one Florida neighborhood that houses a similar radar system have developed higher instances of cancer.
"There's really been so little work done that we don't know what the effects are," said Slesin, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental policy. "They're putting these systems in neighborhoods when the responsible thing to do is some long-term health research on the effects of low-level radiation."
Like other environmental issues to confront the Ojai Valley in recent years, the radar system fight has drawn some well-heeled opponents. Actor Larry Hagman, who lives in the shadow of the steel structure, was one of those in Gallegly's office days after the tower was erected.
"They haven't followed any of the rules up here that they demand we abide by," Hagman said of the weather service. "They snuck it in over two or three days working overtime.
"They haven't asked us if they could put it in. They haven't included any of the neighbors here. Now I'm fighting my private money against my own tax dollars, which is kind of double indemnity," Hagman said.
The Ojai residents will not go into tonight's meeting unarmed. Hedman and others have retained a leading environmental attorney and have dived headfirst into what studies have been performed.
Without some concrete assurance of safety from the government, San Francisco attorney James L. Jaffe will ask a federal judge to grant an injunction on the project before Christmas.
"That would slow it down enough so that if the local citizens are truly opposed to the project, they would have time to review all the data," Jaffe said.
"Then they might be able to mobilize a sufficient political force to have the project modified, moved or killed."
Ojai Valley residents will meet tonight with National Weather Service officials and Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) to discuss their concerns about possible health effects from the newly installed radar tower. The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Summit Elementary School, 12525 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, in Ojai.