Group Fights Oil Drilling in Ventura County

           OJAI, Calif. (CN) — In granting a permit for oil wells whose emissions will violate air standards, a nonprofit watchdog claims in court, Ventura County also approved “use of a road found to be so dangerous that its use for oil tanker traffic was prohibited in 1983.”
     Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas sued Ventura County on July 21 in Superior Court, and named Mirada Petroleum as a real party in interest.
     By 3-2 vote in June the Board of Supervisors approved modification of a land-use permit to allow Mirada to drill three new wells, re-drill an old well, and allow tanker traffic on narrow and winding Koenigstein Road and its dangerous intersection at Highway 150.
     Supervisors did this though the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District estimates that each well emits 2 lbs. of reactive organic compounds per day, and the county has a 5-lb.-per day “threshold of significance” for the Ojai Valley air shed, according to the complaint.
     Nonetheless, the environmental impact report “inexplicably finds” that the project “will not have significant adverse impacts on traffic safety or air quality,” the group says.
     The county agreed to let Mirada drill the new wells and re-drill an old one in Upper Ojai, and haul it in tankers on Koenigstein Road for 25 years, despite two appeals from Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas.
     Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas, or CFROG, is a nonprofit group of more than 500 volunteers. They claim the drilling plans and the county’s approval will lead to “wholesale violations” of the California Environmental Quality Act.
     The county claims that the new oil wells are exempt from CEQA review — the group denies it.
     “The county’s analysis that newly proposed oil wells in Ventura County are exempt from the departments’ CEQA review of this and other discretionary projects is incorrect,” CFROG says on its website.
     It says the county’s claim “that new oil well drilling projects are exempt from environmental review regarding air pollution emissions is fundamentally inconsistent with CEQA, the Ventura County General Plan, and the Ojai Valley Area Plan specific provisions to the contrary. The major premise appears to be that there need be no CEQA review because oil wells must be permitted and such permits are ministerial.”
     Ventura County first granted a conditional use permit to drill in the oilfield – called the Agnew Lease – in 1976. That permit went to Phoenix West Oil and Gas, which drilled six wells there.
     In 1983, the county banned oil tanker trucks from Koenigstein Road due to safety concerns, finding in an environmental impact report that the road is too narrow to accommodate two passing trucks. However, trucks have been using Koenigstein to get to the oilfield since a storm washed out a private access road more than two decades ago.
     The 1983 environmental impact report also found that emissions from the six oil wells on the site could significantly affect air quality if mitigation measures were not implemented.
     But a 2015 supplemental environmental impact [SEIR] report on the Agnew modification found that the three proposed wells wouldn’t harm air quality.
     That is the conclusion that CFROG finds inexplicable.
     The City of Ojai objected to the air quality policies laid out in that report and asked the county to adhere to the 5-lb. per day threshold for reactive organic compounds, or ROCs.
     Simple math shows that Ojai is right, CFROG says.
     It also claims that the county blew off concerns of the California Department of Transportation, which submitted a letter in 2015 during review of the Agnew modification, citing concerns about sight lines along Highway 150 and turning radius on Koenigstein.
     “The SEIR inexplicably finds that the Agnew proposal will not have significant adverse impacts on traffic safety or air quality,” CFROG says in the complaint. “These findings result in the county failing to incorporate mitigation for its impacts on human health and safety.”
     County Commissioner Linda Parks said in an email: “Our decisions are based on the totality of the information we receive. Personally, I was quite concerned to see a video shown at the hearing by County staff that showed one of the oil tanker trucks that serves the oil well being unable to negotiate the turn onto Koenigstein without crossing the center yellow line, which could put it into oncoming traffic,”
     CFROG asks the court to order the county to set aside and vacate the SEIR and any approvals for the Agnew proposal, and to prepare and certify a new SEIR that complies with CEQA, with complete disclosure the potential environmental impacts.
     It is represented by Michelle Black with Chatten-Brown & Carstens in Hermosa Beach.
     Neither CFROG nor its attorneys returned phone and email requests for comment on Friday.

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