Oceano Dunes pollution meeting was science; politics is later

Anyone expecting a fracas between off-roaders and Oceano Dunes purists at the meeting this week about how the Dunes pollute the Nipomo Mesa left disappointed.

What the 100 or so people at the South County Regional Center witnessed instead was a highly technical explanation of a study supporting the thesis, laced with phrases like “micrograms per cubic meter,” “data points” and “aerosol episodes.”

However, fear, barely noticeable but there nonetheless, hung over the meeting like the fine sand the study measured.

Those who love to drive their quads and other off-road vehicles at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area are deeply afraid that this study will be used to justify their removal from the Dunes because of health reasons.

Nobody has suggested doing so, and Larry Allen of the Air Pollution Control District said pointedly at the start of the meeting, “Did (we) conduct this study so that (we) could shut down the SVRA? No, we did not.”

Moderator Brad Isaacs, a consultant to the district, asked people with that sort of question to hold their fire because, though he considered their concerns legitimate, “This is not a decision-making meeting.”

Researchers then presented their detailed explanation of what they had studied, their methodology and conclusions.

There is a several-hundred-page report with raw data available online. In layman’s terms, the chief finding is that off-road vehicles, by destroying vegetation and the crust on the sand, make it easier for “particulate matter” to become airborne and reach the downwind Nipomo Mesa.

That creates a “significant health risk,” Allen said, although the extent of that risk on individual Nipomo Mesa residents has yet to be measured. Particulate pollution has been linked in other areas to asthma, bronchitis, decreased lung function and even death, with a greater effect on the elderly, the young and those with respiratory problems.

All the reassurances from the researchers that the study is not about off-roaders may or may not have persuaded those present.

During the question-and-answer period, a few audience members asked about the health effects, but a number of questioners seemed to be challenging the report itself, as skeptics have done internationally with global warming science.

One questioner, for example, asked if Allen and his fellow researchers could be “100 percent certain” of the report’s conclusions. Researcher Joel Craig pointed out that no scientific study can predict anything with 100 percent accuracy, but that he and his peers consider the chances of the report’s conclusions being solid as “significant.”

Off-roaders may have been laying the groundwork for the March 24 meeting of the Air Pollution Control Board, at which researchers will present their data, and then the discussion will veer from the scientific to the political.

The air board’s directors are members of the Board of Supervisors and other elected bodies. All are decision-makers, and all consider economics with the science in making those decisions.

Allen said governments typically look at economics, and, “I’m sure it’s going to be part of the equation.”

Off-roading is considered a cash cow for South County merchants, although there is disagreement about exactly how much money it brings in. Nor has anyone completed a formal study of possible alternative tourist uses in the Dunes riding area and what kind of income that could generate for the local and county economies.

Allen added that inaction in the face of a public health hazard also has financial consequences, on top of the health concerns.

He and the other researchers, however, said there may be ways to cut the particulate pollution from the Dunes, short of banning off-road vehicles.

The Health Commission will discuss the study Monday at 6 p.m. at the Board of Supervisors’ chambers, 1055 Monterey St.