On November 14 a Superior Court Judge ruled that Ventura County ignored California environmental law regarding air pollution when its commercial and industrial permit division and Board of Supervisors approved a local oil company plan to drill three new oil wells in Upper Ojai.
Superior Court Judge Glen Reiser ruled in favor of Californians for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG), an environmental group that filed a 2016 lawsuit challenging the County’s approval of the plans of an oil company, Mirada Petroleum, which wanted to add three new oil wells to an existing oil production site off Koenigstein Road in Upper Ojai.
“The County failed to proceed in the manner required by law through its blanket exclusion of all oil and gas project emissions in determining significance of project impacts upon Ojai Valley air quality,” the Judge wrote in his opinion.
Kimberly Rivers, the executive director of CFROG, said that “For the Ojai area, it means that the county must start calculating the true air emissions for oil and gas projects with the Ojai Valley Area Plan and not pass off their responsibility to the Air Pollution Control Board permitting process. Which means cleaner air overall for the Ojai Valley.”
[NOTE: Suggest bolding Kimberly’s quote, and putting a page break/jump after to the rest of the story]
In the Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) filed as part of the approval for the Mirada Petroleum project in 2015, the County calculated that three new oil wells would emit 2 pounds of additional Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds per well. According to the existing General Plan approved for the Ojai airshed, any new development that would generate more than 5 pounds of new air pollution was deemed a “significant adverse impact.” The County as a whole under the General Plan can approve up to 25 new pounds of air pollution a year.
Defending the project’s approval, the county’s industrial permit manager Brian Baca said in a Planning Commission hearing in April 2016 that “The [project’s] air emissions are so small…There’s no concern whatsoever.”
The County argued nonetheless that the County’s General Plan gave jurisdiction over such approvals to its Air Pollution Control Division (APCD).
Judge Reiser called this “an abdication of the lead agency’s responsibility in the environmental document [approval] to consider and inform the public as to project-related health risks and steps being taken, if any, to mitigate those risks.”
Supervisor Steve Bennett, who with Supervisor Linda Parks voted against approving the project when the issue came before the Board of Supervisors in April of 2016, said that it will be up to the applicant to appeal the project, or not, but that in any case the applicant pays for both the preparation and legal defense of the permit, and not the taxpayer.
Pending a possible appeal of the ruling against the county, neither the Supervisor nor Whitney McDonald, the attorney representing the oil company, would discuss the implications of the ruling.
The lawsuit also contended that the county overlooked the danger of oil trucks passing over a small bridge abutting Highway 150 at Koenigstein Road, and Judge Reiser agreed.
In l983 the county banned oil tanker traffic on Koenigstein for safety reasons, routing it through a oil road that connected to Koenigstein to the north. When the oil road was washed out in l995, the county did not contest the use of the road by oil trucks, and when the issue was raised by CFROG and local citizens, the county contended that no one had complained about it.
Judge Reiser rejected that contention, and noted that CalTrans in 2015 called for the widening of the bridge at the intersection and the installation of warning flashing lights in both directions on the highway. Although planning manager Brian Baca discounted the risk of accidents at the intersection when he spoke before the Board of Supervisors, the Judge noted that “the county representative advocating the purported insignificance of traffic safety impacts was a geologist, not a civil engineer.”
Photo: White Ledge Peak cloudscape, by Tim Nafziger