Faced with a finding that their facility's emissions may have harmed local residents, operators of a Lockwood Valley clay mine have agreed to pollution control measures at the rural back-country site.
A study by the county's Air Pollution Control District found that Pacific Custom Materials is violating its permit by releasing 1 1/2 times as much sulfur dioxide--the precursor to acid rain--as standards allow.
Residents of the remote Lockwood Valley area in northeast Ventura County have complained for two years that the mine is responsible for their nausea, painful breathing, dizziness, and eye, nose and skin irritation, and have filed a lawsuit seeking damages.
Sulfur dioxide, a caustic gas that can cause breathing difficulties, could be an explanation for some of their symptoms, said Dick Baldwin, executive director of the pollution district.
After learning that they would be denied a reprieve from fixing the problem, company executives agreed Thursday to adopt a pollution control system to cut down on such emissions.
After Lockwood Valley residents filed their lawsuit last year, Pacific Custom Materials maintained that it had complied with all applicable regulations.
A spokesman for the company, a division of Dallas-based TXI, said the company is in talks with the county and attorneys for the residents to find a resolution.
Frank Sheets, the company spokesman, chose not to comment on whether the emissions were the cause of residents' health problems, saying the company couldn't talk "about something we don't know."
"We are in the process of dealing with it," he said.
A lawyer for the residents said he was pleased that the company will attempt to better control emissions. But that doesn't make up for the time residents spent in an area they described as clouded with choking dust and toxic fumes, he added.
Located near Frazier Park, the community--which has been home to as many as several dozen people--has recently seen residents fleeing the area and what they call lives made miserable by the fumes and dust.
"It's definitely solace, but is it the panacea? No," said attorney Robert J. Mandell, who filed suit on behalf of 26 residents in June. "Significant damage has already been done to these people, from health problems to losing their property outright" by leaving.
The suit alleges that Pacific Custom Materials' facility emits excessive fumes and dust, buries hazardous waste on its premises, and has failed to notify the community of potential health risks.
The company agreed Thursday to build a temporary lime-injection system, which would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions to the appropriate standards. That should be pulled together in a week or two, Baldwin said. The company will be required to pay a fine for doing so because it's not part of the current permit.
In addition, the company will apply to build a permanent pollution control system, Baldwin said.
The mine is the subject of an investigation by the California Air Resources Board and could be fined for its toxic emissions.
A spokesman for Air Resources Board would not comment.
In March, the air district cited Pacific Custom Materials for three violations of air quality rules, including one for dumping ultra-fine dust on the ground, which then was scattered by trucks and wind. The company was fined $10,000 for that infraction, plus $2,000 for two lesser infractions.
The company extracts clay from its mine in Los Padres National Forest, about 20 miles northeast of Ojai, and processes it in kilns at its plant in Lockwood Valley for such items as skid-resistant highway surfaces, fireproof roof tiles and lightweight concrete for use in high-rise buildings.
The emissions occur when diesel-soaked clay is superheated in the kilns. Pacific Custom Materials is permitted to use up to 3.2 million gallons of diesel fuel annually.
Nearby residents said they aren't surprised that the plant was found to be emitting excessive pollution, just that it took so long to come to the surface.
"We knew that that place was really, really bad, but we couldn't prove it because nobody would do an environmental study," said Susan Norfleet Lee, who moved to the Santa Clarita area with her roommate after complaining of nausea and headaches while living in Lockwood Valley. "There aren't many people in the area. But the question is how many people do you sacrifice before it's a problem?"