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Portion of Oceano Dunes may close to off-roaders at request of air pollution control officer

Off-roaders ride at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area near fencing designed to reduce the spread of dust into nearby communities.
Off-roaders ride at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area near fencing designed to reduce the spread of dust into nearby communities. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District has requested that a portion of the Oceano Dunes be shut down to off-road vehicles, saying that State Parks is endangering the health of nearby communities with dust from vehicle activity.

“This is a public nuisance and a health threat. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with now,” Air Pollution Control Officer Larry Allen said in a hearing that began Monday.

The APCD says vehicle activity at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area has been proven to be the major contributor to dust emissions that cause poor air quality in downwind communities.

In a petition filed in October, it requested that the APCD Hearings Board determine that the Department of Parks and Recreation is in violation of state Health and Safety Code and district rules, that the dust from the dunes is a public nuisance, and that the board order abatement by setting specific emission reduction levels within a set time frame.

Specifically, the APCD has requested an order to shut down vehicle access to the area that causes the most dust pollution and offered four options to abate the alleged nuisance:

▪  Prohibit vehicles on 100 acres of the most emissive areas.

▪  Prohibit vehicles on 200 acres of the most emissive areas.

▪  Prohibit camping and off-road vehicle riding on the 584-acre La Grande tract from Feb. 1 to June 30 each year.

▪  Prohibit camping and off-road vehicle riding on the La Grande tract year-round.

No decision has been made yet. A hearing began Monday with testimony from Allen and other witnesses and will continue at a future date that is yet to be determined. At that time, State Parks, represented by the Attorney General’s Office, will make its argument and the board will hear comments from the public.

The APCD received 130 complaints from residents downwind of the dunes between May 2012 and March 2017, according to an APCD staff report. During that time, monitoring sites recorded that the state health standards for particulate matter were exceeded 605 times and federal standards were exceeded seven times.

They know prohibiting vehicles is effective in reducing dust, they say, because a dramatic reduction in emissions is measured when seasonal fencing is installed to protect snowy plover nesting habitat from March to September each year.

In addition, the county Health Commission sent a letter in May recommending that the Board of Supervisors “respond vigorously to the significant ongoing health risks endured by our residents and outdoor workforce.”

While the California Coastal Commission recently approved a five-year plan to mitigate dust at the dunes, the APCD in a staff report said that process will take too long and the results are uncertain.

State Parks, through Deputy Attorney General Mitchell Rishe, has argued, in part, that the APCD is ignoring a court-ordered process and the fact that some dust occurs naturally. In 2011, APCD adopted Rule 1001 to address particulate matter emissions at the dunes. That rule was challenged in court by recreational vehicle enthusiast group Friends of Oceano Dunes, and State Parks joined the challenge. After months of negotiations, State Parks and APCD entered into an agreement that creating a dispute resolution process.

During the hearing, Allen agreed that there is naturally occurring dust but said that dust is four to five times worse in riding areas and the La Grande tract is five to eight times more emissive than all nonriding areas combined.

State Parks has also argued that the public recreational and economic benefit of the dunes outweighs the harm.

“We understand the need for recreation and the value,” Allen said. “We’re just trying to get relief for residents who have been affected. We’re here to protect public health.”

Allen, who has directed the APCD since 2002, is retiring. This is his last week on the job.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

This recreational vehicle found itself in a bit of a predicament Saturday, March 26, 2016, at the Oceano Dunes.

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