County board approves air quality fines on Nipomo Mesa

State Parks would pay up to $1,000 for each day that the amount of dust blowing off Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area exceeds state limits

dsneed@thetribunenews.comNovember 16, 2011 

By a four-vote margin, the county air pollution control board Wednesday approved a new regulation that holds State Parks liable for excessive amounts of dust blowing off Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

The rule requires that the state develop a plan to reduce the number of days air quality on the Nipomo Mesa exceeds state standards for particulates. A scientific study concluded that off-highway vehicle riding in the dunes increases the amount of dust coming from the park.

Once the plan is in effect in May 2015, the park could be fined if dust blowing off the riding area exceeds natural background levels. Whether to give the district the authority to levy fines was the key issue debated in the daylong hearing.

State Parks authorities said they are committed to developing a plan to reduce dust emissions from the park. The threat of fines would be counterproductive, they said.

“It dampens our ability to be creative and find solutions,” said Phil Jenkins, chief of the state Off- Highway Vehicle Recreation Division.

Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer, said fines give the district “a measure of control” over State Parks that a mere handshake deal would not. However, fines would be a last resort and would likely be a fraction of the maximum $1,000 a day that the law allows, he said.

The 7-4 vote to approve the rule featured a rare abstention. Grover Beach City Councilwoman Karen Bright abstained because she believes OHV riding does contribute to higher dust levels, but her council voted to oppose the rule, leaving her “in a moral dilemma and a sticky wicket.”

More than 30 members of the public commented on the rule. By a ratio of 2-to-1 they were Nipomo Mesa residents and others who urged the board to adopt the rule.

“Public health is your primary responsibility,” Mesa resident Arlene Versaw said. “Delay is not an option.”

Several Mesa residents said there’s so much dust on windy days that they can see the air they are breathing. Others said the dust has caused them respiratory problems.

The threat of litigation was another subject of lengthy discussion. Pismo Beach City Councilman Ed Waage, who voted to not adopt the rule, said flaws in the district’s scientific study leaves it open to lawsuits from State Parks or pro-OHV riding groups.

Others, including Supervisor Adam Hill, said the district faces even greater threat of litigation by Mesa residents if it does not take decisive action to deal with the dust problem. He also decried what he called attempts by opponents of the rule “to fertilize fear and attack other people’s motives.”

The new rule caps years of effort by the air district to deal with high dust levels on the Mesa, which exceed state health standards an average of 60 days a year. Dust levels are typically four to 12 times the state standard.

State Parks has a number of tools available to it to reduce dust from the riding area. These include planting trees and native vegetation and placing out hay bales to reduce the speed of the wind blowing along the surface of the dunes.

These techniques could reduce the number of high dust days on the Mesa by 75 percent, Allen said. State Parks has until July 2013 to come up with a dust reduction plan and get it approved by Allen.

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