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Under siege 

SLO County is under siege, not from foreign armies but from our own state government. You can count on the California Coastal Commission following through with its stated objective of terminating off-road vehicle recreation at the Oceano Dunes State Vehiclular Recreation Area. The fact that it is the last stretch of beach remaining in the state to ride off-road adjacent to the ocean is irrelevant. Of course, the Coastal Commission will go through all the motions of public hearings, but the decision is made; they as much as said it in the staff report on the issue.

It is doubly ironic as the SLO County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) hearing board has spent the last several years engaging with public comment, hearings, and devising plans with State Parks to come up with mitigation measures for the air pollution generated by off-road vehicle use at the dunes.

Many scientific studies were generated to scientifically and legally prove that a public health hazard existed at unacceptable levels and that drastic measures were needed to mitigate the hazard of blowing sand. The particulate matter was a form of silicate that when inhaled inflicted severe damage in the deepest recesses of the lung. This is not new science: During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as documented in the book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, a phenomena known as "dust pneumonia" killed and crippled thousands. "The prairie dust has a high silica content which causes silicosis. As it builds up in the lungs, it tears at the honeycombed web of air sacs and weakens the body's resistance. After prolonged exposure, it has the same effect on people as coal dust has on a miner. Silicosis has long been a plague of people who work underground and is the oldest occupational respiratory disease ... it takes years to build up."

Dust Bowl conditions do not exist at the dunes on the scale of the Great Depression Dust Bowl. For instance, "In Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature soared above 100 degrees for 35 consecutive days. On the 36th day, it reached 117. ... The dust was like a nail file, a grit strong enough to hurt. People rubbed Vasoline in their nostrils as a filter."

The long-term health effects of ultra-fine dust from the dunes are real, just as the effects of the silica mixed with heavy metals from the collapse of the World Trade Center have been ruled responsible for the premature deaths and respiratory-related early retirement of 2,000 first responders and contractors who worked on the rubble pile.

Something had to be done to mitigate the dust from the Oceano Dunes. The APCD hearing board and State Parks had finally begun to make progress; that progress has now been pre-empted by the Coastal Commissions' stated intent to shut down off-road vehicle recreation.

As a former hazmat specialist and instructor, I'm puzzled by one action that often occurs when an intractable hazardous material poses a threat to public health. In hazmat, you contain and remove the hazard or you remove the people from the hazard—or usually both.

In this case, we can't totally remove the hazard, a respiratory threat from ultra-fine blowing dust, but we can remove the people. Maybe it's time for a "Love Canal" solution, removing the homes (using plume modeling to determine areas most at risk, for portions or all of the housing developments affected by dust hazard). Homes can be red-tagged and condemned by the county health officer. While this may seem harsh, every homeowner was given disclosure statements about local hazards when they purchased their homes yet they chose to buy there. Also, developers probably shouldn't have cut down thousands of eucalyptus trees that formed a partial windbreak and some protection from blowing dust, but it happened.

According to "old-timers" who recall working with bandanas against the dust from the dunes in the 1940s, this dust hazard has always existed, but off-highway recreational vehicles have made the problem worse. It will take decades to mitigate the problem by plantings and windbreaks, but I would think the hazard to human health makes it unacceptable for any exposure at current levels.

The Oceano Dunes is the only remaining area in the state designated for off-road recreational vehicles adjacent to the ocean and provides enormous economic benefits to the county. The economic loss, especially to South County, will be severe: $243 million in economic activity is at risk as 2 million visitors, mostly from the Central Valley, will have no place to play out of the heat. The entire county will be affected as every town along Highway 101 benefits from pass-through tourism. It's possible that South County communities will return to their economically challenged state of the 1960s.

When coupled with the closure of Diablo Canyon and rumored shortfall of decommissioning funds, small businesses and public agencies are in for some economic pain. I suspect the Phillips 66 Refinery in Nipomo will be next. We are a county under siege. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor atclanham@newtimesslo.com.

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