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Ventura County

Fumes Prompt Lawsuit

Attorney general files the action against a Lockwood Valley mine for alleged violations of air quality standards.

October 22, 2002|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

A Lockwood Valley mining operator is facing millions of dollars in fines after the state attorney general's office filed a civil suit claiming the firm was polluting the air and endangering the health of Frazier Park residents.

Prosecutors charge that Pacific Custom Materials Inc. repeatedly exceeded acceptable limits of sulfur dioxide emissions as it burned diesel fuel during the manufacture of lightweight concrete, fireproof roof tiles and skid-resistant highway surfaces.

Neighbors have long complained of dizziness, nausea, painful breathing and skin irritation. In 1999, they filed suit against the company, a division of Dallas-based Texas Industries. The suit is pending.

The attorney general's action was filed Oct. 15 in Ventura County Superior Court on behalf of the state Air Resources Board and the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

It asks for fines of from $1,000 to $1 million per day since the violations were first recorded about two years ago. The number of days of violations has yet to be determined, but investigators found that the company exceeded emissions standards on at least five occasions.

"We have not seen the complaint yet, but we are a little surprised because we had been working closely with the air pollution district in Ventura to assure we maintain compliance at that facility," said Pacific Custom spokesman Frank Sheets. "We thought we were making progress. We have environmental monitors there continuously."

But Keith Duval, who heads the compliance division of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, said that because of previous violations, Pacific Custom was under stringent emission limits. "The recent data we received shows they have gone higher than those limits -- sometimes as much as 50% to 60%," Duval said.

Using temporary pollution control measures, the clay mine was able to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in 2000. But neighbors didn't notice any difference.

"It smells like diesel fuel and sometimes it smells like turpentine," said Sylvia Richards-Swan, who lives about 200 yards from the plant. "It takes your breath away. It's like having a diesel truck sitting in my living room."

The company occupies 380 acres a few miles from Frazier Park and leases mining claims on 580 acres nearby. The clay is mixed with up to 3.2 million gallons of diesel fuel each year and burned in kilns. According to air quality officials, no other plant in Southern California uses more diesel fuel.

"I have been in the environmental business for 36 years, and this is mind-boggling," said William Dunlop, an attorney for Environmental World Watch in Northridge. "People living beside the plant had nosebleeds, their hair was falling out, their horses had stillborn [foals]. The air is literally unbreathable."

The attorney general's suit calls for a wide range of fines for violating pollution standards and endangering public health. It said a "considerable number of persons" suffered injuries to their health and safety requiring medical treatment because of the plant.

"The violations are significant and repetitive in nature, occurring over several different testing periods," Duval said. "Sulfur dioxide in high levels can have significant health impacts."

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