Slow-coming dust relief from Oceano Dunes leads to lawsuit

March 9, 2014 

Mesa Community Alliance has filed a lawsuit against State Parks’ Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division and the county Board of Supervisors over PM10 air pollution on the Nipomo Mesa and in Oceano. This is the issue that another local group, Concerned Citizens for Clean Air, has been battling for years.

Numerous studies by the Air Pollution Control District and other agencies, such as the California Air Resources Board and a group of scientists from UC Davis show that the hazardous PM10 particles (not sand) blow from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area because the dunes in the riding area have been destabilized and denuded of vegetation, which enables the wind to carry fine dust up on the Mesa and into Oceano. This specific type of pollution is known to be a significant health hazard. On 95 days in 2013, residents were exposed to air quality that exceeds the state standards designed to protect public health.

So why did we sue?

Because four years after San Luis Obispo County Public Health Services wrote to the Board of Supervisors urging action, we are still awaiting relief. Because PM10 impacts are cumulative, every month that passes subjects Mesa and Oceano residents to a health hazard.

Studies by the APCD and several other outside agencies, including the Great Basin Unified APCD and Santa Barbara County APCD, have mapped the dust plume, have determined the source and have identified an inexpensive, minimally invasive resolution. They’ve concluded that strategically placed revegetation and hay bales would reduce exposure significantly with minimal impact to the 1,500-acre park.

State Parks, as a public agency, should be concerned with public health, but instead has resisted taking the steps necessary to address this serious problem.

Initially it denied that the OHV park was the source of the pollution. Then resistance took the form of challenging the science behind the studies . Off-road supporters threw up all kinds of alternative explanations for the pollution, but all can easily be disproved. State Parks and the off-road lobby then sued the Air Pollution Control District over its Rule 1001 and lost in the courts.

It has continually missed milestones under Rule 1001, and the APCD had to issue a notice of violation. It filed an application for a monitoring plan to the Coastal Commission 14 months ago that was deemed significantly inadequate and has not yet addressed those weaknesses. The application remains incomplete.

Although State Parks apparently will soon be trying out some mitigation measures, based on its track record we have no reason to believe that its efforts will bring dust levels down to state standards developed to protect our health, nor do we expect it will meet the requirements of Rule 1001.

San Luis Obispo County is equally culpable. The Board of Supervisors’ first priority should be to protect its residents, yet the board has sat on the sidelines these four years. The county is the owner of the 584-acre LaGrande Tract within the 1,500-acre OHV park and studies have shown that most of hazardous dust emanates from its tract. It has the responsibility, the authority and the path forward to resolve this issue, yet it has taken no meaningful action to protect us.

The lawsuit is a last resort for Mesa and Oceano residents who are directly affected.

We do not have many avenues to defend ourselves against a well-funded, powerful State Parks agency that is funded by our gasoline taxes and a county government that has taken no action. That is why we sued. And we took legal action now because enough is enough.

How long are we supposed to wait to have our public agencies take necessary steps to protect our health?

Larry Versaw is chief executive officer of Mesa Community Alliance, a 25-year resident of San Luis Obispo County, a former Grover Beach mayor and council member, and an associate engineer with the city of Pismo Beach for 10 years.

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