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Hearing May Decide Ojai Radar Tower's Fate

After an 11-year battle, residents will have their say about the 750,000- watt weather service facility before a national science panel today.

March 30, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Patti Givner has been worried about her family's health ever since a weather radar tower was erected on the mountain above her Ojai home more than a decade ago.

Now, she believes, her family and others who live on Sulphur Mountain may finally get some relief as the wheels of government slowly turn in their favor.

The Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences will hold a public hearing today in Ventura to determine if the Doppler weather station atop the mountain is doing its job or if it should be moved.

The giant golf-ball-like radar tower emits about 750,000 watts of microwave energy. Government studies have found the level of emissions to be safe, but many Ojai residents remain unconvinced.

"My concern has always been the long term -- what's going to happen down the road to people living in the surrounding areas, the fallout areas," Givner said. "It's foreign. It's a microwave and it's not a normal environment. It's going to have an adverse effect. Maybe not right away, but 20, 30, 40 years from now."

Residents united soon after the tower was installed in 1993 to lobby for its removal. They are suggesting it be relocated to Laguna Peak in Oxnard, said Milton Kramer, a semiretired public relations consultant from Thousand Oaks who serves as spokesman for Ventura County Citizens Against Radar Emissions.

No one seems to know how many people live on Sulphur Mountain, but the group's most famous member is actor Larry Hagman, whose home is about 800 yards from the tower. He has taken a prominent role over the years in fighting the installation.

Kramer, who spoke at the first hearing that the NAS Research Council held on the subject last month in Washington, D.C., said the Navy operates surveillance towers on Laguna Peak that would be compatible with the weather service's Doppler station.

"The issue of non-ionizing radiation that comes from microwave transmissions, cellphones, microwave ovens, etc. -- the biological as opposed to the thermal effects -- has not been settled," he said. "However, in recent time there has been evidence to indicate that there are biological effects.

"Citizens up there are concerned about the issue. The concern isn't of uninformed people talking about what they don't know about."

In addition to health concerns, residents also complain that the tower is an eyesore and has driven down home values. And they are still upset with the weather service for, they contend, installing the station practically overnight in 1993 without warning.

They even took the weather service to court over the matter, but a judge sided with the federal government in 1994 and refused to block the project.

But not everyone is opposed to the tower.

Sulphur Mountain residents Tina and Bill Kee lease to the weather service the land the tower sits on for about $1,000 a month.

The tower stands on their property behind a chain-link fence. Tina Kee said she had never worried about the health effects of radiation from the station.

"I don't know what the big deal is," Kee said Monday after officials toured the site. "We haven't had any health problems. I haven't developed another breast or anything. If this were really dangerous, we would all have health problems. We don't. They're beating that old, dead horse again to make something out of nothing."

The tower with the big, white bulb emits radar beams to read weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean. But meteorologists have questioned whether the structure should have been situated on Sulphur Mountain in the first place. The tower's location at 2,700 feet above sea level is too high to detect low-lying winter storms off the coast, they say.

Residents have seized on that observation as reason enough to move the tower. In response, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called for a study by the NAS Research Council to determine if the tower can detect low-lying systems that would indicate possible flash floods for western Los Angeles County and Ventura County. The council will make a recommendation to the National Weather Service.

A spokesman for Boxer was not available for comment Monday.

At today's hearing, a panel of experts will testify on the tower's ability to detect storms, and members of the public will have the chance to share their opinions.

"Our goal is to hear presentations by experts from the National Weather Service about the efficacy of the radar tower and to hear from the public about their concerns," said Bill Kearney, spokesman for the National Academy of Sciences.

The tower's sphere is 30 feet in diameter and rests atop a 68-foot platform perched on a ridgeline. The tower shoots 750,000 watts of microwave energy in a concentrated beam hundreds of feet above the horizon, piercing clouds up to 250 miles away, 24 hours a day.

It is one of 112 such towers in the nation and six in California, all part of the weather service's attempt to provide accurate information. Weather service officials insist the towers are safe.

A 1994 study found that the Sulphur Mountain tower's highest average emission -- 0.0006 milliwatts per centimeters squared -- was far below the national standard of 1.8. Weather service officials have said the 0.0006 emission would have the same effect as standing 10 feet from a microwave oven while it's on. The highest peak of energy emitted by the tower is between 0.01 and 0.1 milliwatts per centimeters squared.

But Givner, whose four children attended an elementary school just below the tower, remained skeptical.

"I think our federal government has lost track of the people," she said. "We need weather forecasting, but not where people live. I really think [radar towers] belong in places that are not residential areas."

Today's hearing will be from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Four Points by Sheraton, 1050 Schooner Drive, Ventura. The public comment period will be from 5 to 6 p.m.

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