The new head of the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District says he is committed to delivering relief in the next year to communities whose air quality has been damaged by dust from the Oceano Dunes, and he supports a plan to redesign the park to continue to allow riding, possibly with a new entrance and a relocated campground.
That will be accomplished, he said, through collaboration with State Parks.
Gary Willey, a 27-year employee of the APCD, takes control as the district’s new officer next week, in the midst of the agency’s high-profile enforcement effort against State Parks over the spread of dust from the off-road vehicle park at the dunes.
“There’s a health problem out there, and we have to get a handle on it,” Willey said. That problem, “is attributed to vehicle riding. We’ve looked at the data.”
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The Cal Poly graduate whose first job was with a mining company will leave his APCD position as manager of the engineering and compliance division to become the APCD officer on Sunday.
A 12-person Air Pollution Control District Board unanimously approved the appointment in September. Willey is tasked with tracking and keeping in check sources of air pollution in the area, including transportation and smoke from prescribed burns, and the biggest single-source emitters like the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery and oil fields in Price Canyon.
Willey replaces Larry Allen, a 35-year veteran of the agency who in his last 15 years as officer oversaw major projects such as Avila Beach remediation — the removal of oil-impacted soils — and a 10-year effort to address particulate pollution impacting residents downwind of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area.
For years, the APCD attempted to address what some downwind communities view as alarming emissions from the dunes. Air monitors have been placed on the dunes and the state has installed hay bales and fencing in the area, but that’s done little to appease neighbors, or, according to Allen, reduce the dust.
In one of his last moves on the job, Allen filed a petition for abatement with the APCD Hearings Board, an action rarely taken in the district that asks for an order that State Parks prohibit vehicles in the most emissive areas of the dunes.
As a new face in the game, Willey said he hopes to de-escalate the tension between State Parks and the APCD and wants the agencies to reach a settlement that brings relief to the public and shows that they can work together.
“All parties recognize that we need to make some changes out there,” he said.
Willey said he doesn’t know if he would have filed a petition for abatement.
“It’s one tool,” Willey said of the action. “I have a chance coming in new, using different avenues, to move forward. Giving a push isn’t going to hurt.”
He is working with State Parks to implement the first year of a five-year plan that was recently approved by the California Coastal Commission. That could create mitigation on 75 to 100 acres, with vegetation added to some riding areas and fencing installed to bar vehicles from other areas, Willey said.
It’s clear, he said, that the more heavily used riding areas emit more dust than the lesser-used areas and areas where no riding occurs.
“I think we’ll see some reductions (of air pollution) this year in our monitors. If we get 100 acres of mitigation, we should see something that registers,” he said.
Whether any settlement of the petition for abatement would require additional mitigation above that plan is yet to be determined, Willey said.
The hearing for abatement began Monday and will continue with the state’s defense, public comment and board deliberations at a future date that hasn’t yet been announced.