Bowing to complaints from residents demanding stricter measures, county officials have delayed for a month imposing new air pollution regulations on the operator of a Lockwood Valley clay mine.
Residents say the new regulations don't go far enough to clamp down on the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted by Pacific Custom Materials.
The Ventura County Air Pollution Control board postponed adding the new controls after neighbors of the mine complained to the panel Monday that they hadn't received adequate notice of the meeting.
"I've never been stopped before from putting on emission controls--particularly by the people who would benefit," said Dick Baldwin, executive officer of the board.
The new measures call for injecting lime into the plant's kilns, which would help cut down on sulfur dioxide emissions. But residents said they don't trust the board to impose the toughest restrictions on the plant.
In January, the clay mine agreed to the new measures after a study by the air pollution district showed that the facility was releasing 1 1/2 times as much sulfur dioxide--a precursor to acid rain--as standards allow.
The decision frustrated pollution regulators, who maintain that the temporary measures the plant has been using since earlier this year are not as effective as the permanent lime injection system the plant has agreed to add.
But Lockwood Valley residents, who have filed a civil suit against the plant, said they believe the air pollution district is the one dragging its feet.
"It's like the fox guarding the hen house," said Sylvia Swan, who lives within 600 feet of the plant's stacks. "We believe the air contamination is the same, but we just can't see it."
Plant opponents believe that the lime injection system being required won't do the job it is expected to do.
"We think [the plant is] using this proposal as a means to buy time," said Bill Dunlap, director of Environmental World Watch, an advocacy group that targets companies suspected of breaking California's pollution laws and a plaintiff in the suit.
"I'm not convinced that the lime injection system will have any effect. . . . We think they've deliberately covered up a more intense review of the technology" out there.
Baldwin said that the plant is only required to bring its emissions down to permit levels, and that legally he cannot require the best available technology of the plant.
Residents of the remote area in northeast Ventura County have complained for more than two years that the mine is responsible for their nausea, painful breathing, dizziness, and eye, nose and skin irritations. They have filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages.
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 Lockwood Valley plant 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. Sulfur dioxide, produced by the burning of diesel fuel, can cause breathing difficulties.
Patrick Cafferty, an attorney for the mine's operator, a division of Dallas-based TXI, said at the hearing that a delay was disappointing because "everyone agrees that [controls] should be put on as soon as possible" and that permanent controls would be more effective.
"They're postponing a matter of great concern," he said.