Oceano Dunes dust deal rejected: It doesn't do enough to protect public health

A hearing board on Wednesday rejected a proposed settlement agreement between the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District and State Parks to reduce dust emissions from Oceano Dunes by 30 percent over five years. Instead, they want greater relief to downwind communities, where the air quality regularly violates state health standards.

The proposed settlement was "vague in a number of areas and not as fully protective of public health as it needs to be," board member William Johnson said.

"I don't think you guys are serious about what needs to be done to abate the problem, and this order demonstrates that pretty clearly. I can't support this," board member Robert Carr said.

The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board ordered the agencies to come back April 30 with a settlement agreement that requires State Parks to reduce dust emissions from the State Vehicular Recreation Area by 50 percent. That reduction in emissions would theoretically bring the level of dust blowing from Oceano Dunes down to a natural level, as found in areas where riding does not occur, according to estimations by APCD.

The motion introduced by board member Paul Ready did not include a set time frame, but Carr said he would like to see the emission reduced within 30 months or three years of the order.

The decision came after dozens of downwind community members lambasted the proposed agreement as pitiful, inadequate and irresponsible, while dunes users — desperate to maintain access to as much of the park as possible — questioned the science of the APCD.

If the settlement cannot be reached, a nuisance abatement trial will proceed, and State Parks will defend itself against the accusation that it is causing a nuisance with dust emissions from the off-road vehicle park. If the board found State Parks guilty of causing the nuisance, it could order abatement. And members' comments indicated that's what the board would do.

APCD Officer Gary Willey said he thinks reaching another agreement with State Parks to implement the new target is possible.

How that goal would be achieved and what the immediate impact would be to riding areas at the state's only ocean-side OHV park in the state is unclear, but the proposed settlement provides indication of what the agencies are thinking.

The longterm vision is to install native plants in the foredunes area on the west side of the park to restore it to 1930s conditions. The failed settlement agreement would have ordered 100 acres closed this year, resulting in a 10 to 12 percent reduction in emissions, and State Parks would reach an additional 5 percent of reductions each of the following four years. Those reductions would likely be met by vegetating the areas closed in the first year.

Mat Fuzie, deputy director of the Off-Highway Vehicle Division of State Parks, raised concern with limited resources, especially the ability to source local seed needed for re-vegetation.

Air monitoring has shown that downwind communities are hit with frequent dust plumes that carry tiny particles, which doctors say correlate with a rise in emergency room visits for difficulty breathing, hospitalization, and increased inhaler usage and are associated with worsened lung function. APCD studies show that some dust emissions occur naturally, but vehicle riding on the dunes contributes to emissions.

"Breathing in America is a right, not a privilege," John Headding, a member of the APCD board, said when he urged the hearing board to reject the agreement and "immediately ensure the protection of the public" because "the science is there."

Among the chorus of those calling for better public health protections were a member of the county Health Commission, the former Air Pollution Control District Officer, and Jimmy Paulding, a candidate for District 4 county supervisor, who said he was there to "advocate for hundreds of families and farmers who live and work on the Mesa and are desperate for cleaner air."

Off-road vehicle enthusiasts also blasted the settlement proposal, but for different reasons, and argued that closing any part of the dunes will result in economic harm to the county. Many are convinced that the entire abatement action is based on faulty science or worse, misinformation.

Lindi Love-Haning pointed to a study that showed no measurable amounts of crystalline silica coming from the Dunes that APCD has been accused of suppressing. She said APCD "created a false narrative to point the finger at the dunes SVRA" and "mislead the state of California" in saying that airborn particulate matter does not originate from an offshore source.

"We don't know that," Love-Haning said, referencing a report by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently cited by Friends of Oceano Dunes that points to offshore algae blooms as a cause of particulate matter.

Carr asked former APCD director Larry Allen why he didn't release the study about crystalline silica, and Allen responded that it was a small sample, that "we weren't hiding any data," and that Rule 1001, regarding dust from the dunes, isn't based on crystalline silica. He said the issue "is a red herring."

Fuzie and Willey both said at the beginning of Wednesday's daylong hearing that they expected people to criticize their settlement agreement, as it was a compromise.

"I know that this stipulated order is not enough for many of you, and it's way too aggressive for everybody else," Willey said.

"I was beat up today," he told The Tribune at the end of the day. "The outcome of today's hearing? We'll have a better agreement, a more defined agreement."

Correction: The Scripps report was cited by Friends of Oceano Dunes after it was published on the State Parks website.

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