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The following article was posted on October 5th, 2011, in the New Times - Volume 26, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 26, Issue 10

Air of contention

State Parks reacts to air regulators' intention to impose fines for dunes dust

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

People on the sidelines of the fight to reduce airborne dust around the Oceano Dunes have fallen into one of two groups: those who think regulators are overstepping their bounds, and those who think they aren’t doing enough.


BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND
After years of back-and-forth over airborne dust downwind from the Oceano Dunes, the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Board voted to force California State Parks to implement a reduction plan, with the possibility of hefty fines for noncompliance.
FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Seldom has this divide been more obvious than on Sept. 28, when the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Board decided to move forward with the first tangible steps to force California State Parks to reduce the levels of dust drifting off the Oceano Dunes and into the lungs of residents of the neighboring Nipomo Mesa.

In a 9-3 vote, the board directed district staffers to move forward with finalizing rules mandating that State Parks draft and enact a comprehensive Particulate Matter Reduction Plan, which would require an Air Pollution Control District (APCD) sign-off. The rules will also establish a performance standard for measuring that plan’s effectiveness, as well as a schedule for compliance.

The board gave a rough timeline of 3 1/2 years to complete these requirements, but, noting the need for coordination with other state agencies, said it would be flexible with the deadline.

As with most developments in this years-long debate, the overall plan didn’t sit well with many people—on either side. Critics of the regulations contend that setting such a plan into action within the given timeframe will be difficult, that underlying science surrounding the new rules is spotty, and that threatening the agency with fines for not being able to meet deadlines is unreasonable.

Residents of the Nipomo Mesa, on the other hand, say that the board is being too lenient with State Parks, that the 3 1/2-year deadline for compliance is too loose, and that their health will continue to suffer as a result.

Three board members—SLO County Supervisor Frank Mecham, Atascadero City Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi, and Pismo Beach City Councilman Ed Waage—voted against the new rules. Fonzi, in particular, noted she wanted to see corrective actions other than fines imposed.

District staffers noted the fines—which could reach up to $1,000 a day—are dictated by state health and safety codes, but that APCD officers could work with park operators to avoid such fines.

“It is the nature—the culture—of this board to bring emitters into compliance, because in the end we trust everyone’s interest is the same. And that is the protection of human health,” said Bruce Gibson, a SLO County supervisor and APCD board member. “And certainly the APCD will collaborate to provide guidance.”

Some possible strategies being considered to mitigate airborne dust include planting vegetation and installing straw bales to reduce wind speeds in the area.

Critics of the district’s plan to set the new regulations in stone—such as Phil Jenkins, chief of California State Parks’ Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Division—contend the district is unfairly faulting off-roaders and imposing unrealistic benchmarks on State Parks for unclear goals.

“There is clearly an issue with [particulate matter] on the mesa. We still want to be part of the solution to that,” Jenkins told the board. “But we are still not convinced … that vehicles are the predominant cause of the particulate matter exceedances.”

In response, Gibson said, “It’s quite clear that there is a health problem on the Nipomo Mesa that this board cannot ignore, and our inaction is not an option at this point. The previous studies … have pointed to the source of what that problem is … . It is the contributions of riding in the off-road area.”

On Sept. 27, James Westbrook, a certified meteorologist with the air-quality consulting firm BlueScape Environmental, submitted a letter to the APCD board on behalf of the pro-OHV group Friends of Oceano Dunes, alleging the board is making decisions based on conclusions drawn from faulty science.

“The Phase 2 study is flawed and technically inadequate, and should not be used as a basis for this or any regulation,” Westbrook wrote, adding that nowhere in the study did the district provide evidence linking OHV presence with high particulate matter in the air.

Kevin Rice, an outspoken OHV advocate and founder of the nonprofit website yourdunes.org, maintains that despite the board’s reassurances, closing—or at least limiting—OHV activities has been the district’s intention all along.

When asked where he sees the process ultimately heading, Rice replied, “Court.”

“And how will that provide a benefit for residents of the mesa or for taxpayers?” Rice added.

The district’s study, released Feb. 22, 2010, ruled out petroleum coke piles from the neighboring ConocoPhillips facility, as well as agricultural activities as a significant source of the problem. The study concluded that particulate matter blowing from the recreational vehicle area was consistently higher than levels from other dune areas with no vehicle access.

“What we’ve heard a lot since the release of the Phase Two study is this kind of faulty premise that insists that any action taken to mitigate the pollution is going to necessitate the closing of the riding area,” said Adam Hill, SLO County supervisor and APCD board member. “It’s an alarmist approach.”

The proposed dust rule will come back before the board for final adoption at its next scheduled meeting on Nov. 16.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.