WASHINGTON -- Federal environmental regulators put Ventura County on notice Thursday that its air quality doesn't meet tough new standards for ozone, a warning that means additional steps will be needed to control smog and make the air healthier to breathe.
Ventura County is one of close to 500 communities across the country that are failing to meet the new standard for ozone, a key ingredient of smog, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
California, and the Los Angeles area in particular, had the worst air pollution in the country, the EPA said. Ventura County was listed in the "moderate" nonattainment category, one of six classifications.
The county must come into compliance with the new ozone standard by 2010.
The designation means the county will have to work with the state and the federal EPA to identify ways to continue reducing emissions, said Scott Johnson, manager of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District's monitoring and planning division. That could be difficult, given that California already has the toughest pollution-control laws in the country, Johnson said.
"For us in Ventura County and for a lot of agencies in California, the challenge is going to be identifying new ways to reduce emissions," Johnson said. "We think based upon our knowledge of everything we have done, we have regulated the sources under our direct authority -- the businesses and operations in Ventura County -- to the greatest extent possible."
Johnson said the county would probably look for additional ways to control emissions from automobiles and consumer products, such as paints and lawnmowers. He also expressed concern that six years may not be enough time for the county to come into compliance with the new standard.
"This is something that we have been trying to raise with the EPA for some time," he said.
Even though Ventura County doesn't meet the new ozone standard, the area has made significant progress in improving the air quality over the past few years, Johnson said.
For each of the past two years, Ventura County met the old standard, which measured ozone for a one-hour period. Air was considered unhealthy under that standard if ozone measured above 120 parts per million over a one-hour period.
The new standard measures over eight hours and considers air to be unhealthy if ozone reaches above 80 parts per million during that period.
Breathing ozone can irritate air passages, reduce lung function, aggravate asthma and damage the cells lining the lungs. It also may aggravate chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis and may reduce the immune system's ability to fight off bacterial infections in the respiratory system.
Ventura County has been considered a nonattainment area ever since the ozone standards were introduced in 1970. The county qualified for removal from the EPA's nonattainment list after meeting the old standard again last year but never applied for the redesignation because of concerns that it would not meet the standard this year, Johnson said.
Last year's forest fires were not a factor in Ventura County failing to meet the new standard, Johnson noted.
Nationwide, 474 counties in 31 states failed to meet the new ozone standard either because their air was too dirty or they were contributing to pollution problems in neighboring communities. Most of the counties that flunked the new standard are in the eastern portion of the country, but 41 are in California.
Parts of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties were designated as being in "severe" nonattainment, one step away from the most serious classification.
States that fail to meet the new standard could face sanctions, such as the potential loss of federal highway dollars.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said the first goal is compliance but stressed that if there are areas where enforcement sanctions are necessary, "the full force of this agency's ability will be used to ensure that."