SLO County Health Commission recommends re-vegetation of Oceano Dunes

The county’s chief health advisory body is urging the Board of Supervisors to take “any and all” steps within its power to re-vegetate and stabilize the Oceano Dunes – a move that could in theory lead to a temporary shutdown of the recreational area.

The Health Commission on Monday night voted to send a letter to supervisors recommending that they take immediate steps to address the public health problem on the Nipomo Mesa being created in part by particulate matter that blows on to the mesa from the dunes.

A study released last month by the county Air Pollution Control District, and outlined for the Health Commission on Monday, documented the trajectory of the particulates, which have been shown elsewhere to cause respiratory distress, especially for the elderly, the young and those with pulmonary problems.

There are as yet no epidemiological studies measuring specific health effects on those who live on the Mesa.

The study concluded that break-up by off-highway vehicles of a natural crust that forms on sand dunes and a lack of vegetative cover in areas where OHVs are ridden are the primary causes of high particulate air pollution being blown from the park to populated areas of the Nipomo Mesa.

Health commissioners on Monday expressed concern about the people who live on the Mesa, several of whom testified in favor of acting aggressively to curb the pollution.

“The right to breathe supersedes the right to recreate,” said one audience member.

As to the economic impact of a temporary closure of the dunes, an audience member said “I am not willing to risk my health for small business bottom line” or “risk my life so people can have fun.”

Off-roaders in the State Vehicular Recreation Area are a powerful force because of the money they bring in.

However, commissioners did not specifically recommend a shutdown. Instead they advised supervisors to take action, leaving the question of what those actions would be to the supervisors.

Several speakers said, however, that dune vegetation could not be brought back to life without shutting down the dunes to off-roaders, at least temporarily.

Some speakers questioned the science and results of the study, and noted the lack of complete information about the effects of the wind-blown sand.

It is not clear exactly what supervisors have the power to do, commissioners noted, since the off-riding area is under the control of state parks. But commissioners said they want county supervisors to know that they consider the roving particulate matter a pressing local public health problem.

The commission’s vote to send the letter was 6-0 with two abstentions.

Commissioners also urged supervisors to find ways to get out the word that there is a health problem from the Dunes on the Mesa. Again, they left the mechanics of that to supervisors.

The health study has drawn considerable public interest since its release. A hundred people attended an informational meeting about it in Arroyo Grande last week., and the Air Pollution Control District has scheduled a hearing March 24.