Air board votes to cap dust at Dunes

After years of studies and negotiations over pollution coming off the Oceano Dunes, county air regulators took the first concrete action Wednesday to force the State Parks Department to reduce the amount of dust from the Dunes.

The county air pollution control board voted to move ahead with new regulations that could subject Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to fines and other enforcement action if dust blowing off the park is not reduced in coming years.

After hours of discussion and public comment, the 12-person board of local elected officials decided health concerns stemming from the blowing dust trumped questions about the science behind the rules.

Numerous board members assured the public that the board’s intention is not to shut down off-highway vehicle riding in the park, an activity that attracts nearly 1.6 million visitors annually. They also promised to be flexible in the 3½-year timeline the Parks Department has to implement a dust control program.

“Inaction is not an option,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. “I think we have to start the process now.”

Three members of the district’s board of directors — County Supervisor Frank Mecham, Councilman Ed Waage of Pismo Beach and Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi of Atascadero — voted against the dust rule. They preferred to follow a more collaborative plan set forth by State Parks that called for implementing dust control measures at the park and then modifying them as necessary to increase their effectiveness.

“Any specific reference to control measures, monitoring and enforcement criteria should be deferred until there is a comprehensive framework in place to establish feasibility and effectiveness,” wrote Phil Jenkins, chief of the state’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division in a letter to the board.

Several board members, including county Supervisor Adam Hill, characterized State Parks’ last-minute proposal as “more stonewalling” in the effort to deal with an air pollution crisis that has dragged on for years. The Nipomo Mesa, which is downwind of Oceano Dunes, frequently experiences unhealthy air quality on windy days, most commonly in the spring.

The proposed dust rule will come back before the air board for possible final adoption Nov. 16. It stems from a scientific study released last year that showed dust levels blowing from the riding area within the park are consistently higher than dune areas elsewhere.

Under the proposal voted on Wednesday, Oceano Dunes could be subjected to fines of as much as $1,000 a day if dust emissions from the park exceed those from nearby nonriding areas in the Dunes by a small buffer margin. Demonstrating actions to correct violations could prevent fines.

Options available to State Parks to reduce dust emissions include installing straw bales or other objects in the Dunes and planting vegetation, all in order to reduce wind speeds. Planting trees and installing wind fences are also options.