State Parks and the county Air Pollution Control District agreed to a landmark settlement this week that officials say would reduce air pollution from Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area by about 30 percent by 2023 and cause some off-road riding areas to be closed this year.
The county Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board will hear details of the settlement and take public comment at a meeting on Wednesday, before deciding whether to accept or reject the proposal. The meeting is set for 9 a.m. at the San Luis Obispo City Council Chambers at 990 Palm St.
The settlement will likely disappoint both off-road vehicle riders who don’t believe they cause the dust, as well as downwind communities, who hoped the proposed nuisance abatement order filed by an departing Air Pollution Control officer would bring immediate relief through the closure of the heavily used 584-acre La Grande tract or additional acreage.
“This is the most sure way to get something significant done in the quickest manner,” said new Air Pollution Control District Officer Gary Willey.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
Both he and Mathew Fuzie, the deputy director of the off-highway division of State Parks, said a settlement lowers the risk of significant legal delays.
“We’re hoping this settlement caries the day because it moves the ball forward, rather than if we get an abatement order, the state has to defend itself against,” Fuzie said.
The settlement, “keeps us out of an adversarial process and puts us into a more collaborative process,” Fuzie said.
The Oceano Dunes State Park is accused of being the main source of air pollution in downwind communities, where large plumes of dust violate air quality standards about 70 days each year due to particles of sand that are small enough to cause severe health effects in residents’ lungs.
Under the settlement, State Parks does not accept responsibility or admit to causing nuisance dust pollution, but it does agree to a stipulated order to meet reduction goals by restoring vegetation in the historic foredune area as viewed in a 1930s photograph, which officials believe will reduce airborne dust.
“The overarching goal is to mitigate the dust emissions down to a regular air quality area … to what a community should expect if there weren’t OHV activity,” Willey said.
If all riding stopped in the area, he said he would expect air quality violations would continue, but reduce to about 10 a year.
Specifically, the settlement would order State Parks to:
- Immediately fence off about 100 acres of riding area, some of which is on the popular La Grande Tract. (This includes areas already closed this year).
- Achieve additional 5 percent reductions in PM10 (fine particulate matter) emissions each year for the next four years.
- Install a program that removes sand from vehicle wheels at Grand and Pier Avenue park exits.
How State Parks would meet the 5 percent reductions each year is up to them, Willey said, but will likely include native vegetation, which further reduces dust in areas that have already been fenced off. Plans include ongoing monitoring to measure progress.
This year’s closures should reduce emissions by 10 to 12 percent, with a total emissions reduction of about 30 percent by 2023, according to Willey.
“Thirty percent is theoretic,” Fuzie said. “We won’t know until we measure. If we’re lucky, it will be more.”
The settlement would retain the hearing board’s ability to enforce the order with penalties of $25,000 a day for violations.
Riders will see a difference.
“It allows us to still operate offering a scaled-down version of what we’ve been offering to the public. We’re going to have to look at maximizing the areas that are available to us now. We’re just going to have to work hard with the user groups and the visitors to have a smart program out there,” Fuzie said.
If the hearing board rejects the settlement on Wednesday, hearings will continue in April with State Parks' defense. Ultimately, the hearing board could rule State Parks is causing the nuisance and order abatement, which could result in larger closures.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described what the Coastal Commission has approved. The Coastal Commission has not approved the Public Works Plan. It did recently approve the first steps of State Parks dust plan. Mathew Fuzie said if the settlement agreement is approved, State Parks would need to consult with the Coastal Commission about implementation.