Finding out what is in the air over the Nipomo Mesa

Brian Aunger, Air Pollution Control District engineer, walks among air sampling monitors Thursday. The monitors will be deployed across the Nipomo Mesa.
Brian Aunger, Air Pollution Control District engineer, walks among air sampling monitors Thursday. The monitors will be deployed across the Nipomo Mesa. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Looking like an army of robots, 20 mobile air samplers are gathered at an air quality monitoring site off Highway 1 near Nipomo in preparation for being deployed throughout the Nipomo Mesa for the next three months.

Starting March 1, the air samplers will be set out in a grid pattern across the Mesa. They will continuously sample the air for dust particles during the windiest time of year — March, April and May.

In the meantime, the samplers are being repaired and calibrated and their readings compared to a federally licensed air quality station at the permanent monitoring site, said Jaime Contreras, air quality monitoring specialist with the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District.

“We want to make sure they are working properly and any problems are fixed before we deploy them,” he said. “They are all looking good.”

The information the samplers gather will be used to improve air quality forecasting on the Mesa and help State Parks design programs to reduce sand dust blowing off of Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

“Our goal is to see where the highest concentrations of particulates are and map the spatial extent of the plume,” said Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer.

During the windy season, air quality on the Nipomo Mesa frequently exceeds state health standards.

The air district recently adopted a new dust-control rule that requires State Parks to take steps to reduce the amount of windblown dust originating from Oceano Dunes.

The air samplers are on loan from air districts all over California and as far away as New Jersey. Each device costs about $20,000, Contreras said.

They will be deployed over 18 square miles of the Mesa, one sampler per square mile. Two samplers will be placed in Oceano, an area also downwind of the state park. Most will be in residential backyards, with a few located at businesses.

The data these temporary samplers gather during the next three months will be compared to four permanent air quality stations — three on the Mesa and the fourth in San Luis Obispo.

Each of these permanent stations records a range of particulate air quality ranging from the dustiest at the County/Cal Fire station on the Mesa to the cleanest in San Luis Obispo, Allen said.

Using the permanent stations as a template, air quality officials will be able to predict daily and weekly air quality conditions at various parts of the Mesa throughout the year. This information will eventually be available on the air district’s website, and schools on the Mesa will fly a different colored flag each day depending on the air quality forecast.

The neighborhood monitoring program for the South County costs about $45,000, with some $20,000 of that coming from State Parks, Allen said. In addition to air district staff, Cal Poly environmental engineering students helped with the project.

The students participated in all aspects of the project — everything from testing the equipment to constructing the platforms upon which the temporary samplers will be mounted.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Danielle Noce, a second-year student who participated in the project. “College is a lot of studying and lectures, so it’s good to get some hands-on experience in the field.”