The largest air-pollution reduction plan in the history of the Oceano Dunes was adopted Monday afternoon, when an air quality hearing board approved a settlement with State Parks to reduce dust emissions from the off-road vehicle park by 50 percent in five years.
The historic order calls for State Parks to fence off foredune areas from riding, driving and camping no later than Sept. 15, 2018, for the purpose of installing vegetation. It calls for the agencies to work together to create a plan in the next year to achieve the goal of reducing particulate matter from the park, to hold regular public hearings, to involve a scientific advisory committee, and to increase monitoring.
State Parks officials said the agency will hire an air quality project manager to oversee the effort.
All of that is intended to reduce the plume of dust that floats into nearby communities during heavy winds, causing South County residents to experience concentrations of particulate matter that health officials and the American Lung Association said are dangerous to lung and respiratory function and can be deadly.
While the all-day hearing was underway, Nipomo Mesa experienced the fourth day in a row of air so bad that county officials issued a warning to "reschedule outdoor activities to occur when there is no visible dust."
One man who suffers from lung disease, Stanley Fisher, said he could not attend the hearing because his body did not have enough oxygen.
"I believe this is the fastest path to cleaning up the air. You're going to see significant changes next spring," Air Pollution Control Officer Gary Willey said of the plan. He stepped into the position just five months ago.
Board issues a decision
In front of a crowded room packed beyond capacity by both dune riders and downwind residents, the county APCD Hearing Board voted 4-1 to approve a stipulated abatement order in a nuisance hearing brought last year by former APCD Officer Larry Allen.
The board could have rejected the order and continued with the hearing to find State Parks in violation of state laws and issue their own order for abatement, an option that dozens of Nipomo Mesa residents requested out of a desire for quicker relief from dust pollution.
Allen on Monday said that board's adoption of the order "is critical to assure dust mitigation can be installed immediately" but warned that it's "far too vague in areas to be effective" because it requires State Parks to act with good faith, which he said is not its culture.
Arlene Versaw of Concerned Citizens for Clean Air said that "without specific penalties for noncompliance, we and you cannot rely on State Parks to do what is promised, because it never has."
Mat Fuzie, deputy director of State Parks' Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division, reiterated the commitment from his agency and said "we are not denying that there is a PM issue. We're trying to move forward on that issue."
"This plan is aggressive compared to plans in the past," Fuzie said.
The lone hearing board member to vote against the approval was Robert Carr, a former APCD officer, who said he wanted to shorten the time frame, clarify requirements on how abatement is going to be enforced, and consider the makeup of the scientific advisory group.
Officials acknowledged that penalties for enforcement are in the hands of Willey, who is under control of the APCD board, some of whose members complained to Allen that the nuisance complaint was even filed.
"If I lose my job. So be it. That's just a part of this position," Willey said. "I'm committed to holding both myself and State Parks accountable. It's all going to come down to who is enforcing this agreement in the end. And that'll be me."
The new tone of collaboration between State Parks and the APCD was a selling point for supporters of the plan.
"They need a chance. I think there's a spirit of cooperation I have not seen before. It's a get-the-job-done kind of attitude," said Dr. Bill Nickling, a special master assigned to facilitate dispute resolutions between State Parks and APCD.
"They don't like the people"
The decision was a let-down for dunes riders, who pointed to the economic benefits of the park and questioned the science behind closures in an effort to save acreage from being shut to riding.
Lyndi Love-Haning, a Nipomo Mesa resident and off-road vehicle enthusiast, hammered the issue that "there are clearly other sources of emissions that have yet (to be) fully explored." She said she's witnessed construction in the area that has not followed mitigation measures, and blamed heavy construction, dirt roads and farming for dust in the area.
"It's not about the dust, guys. It's about the people using the OHV park. They don't like the people," she said.
"Oh, B.S.," someone in the crowd yelled, prompting board chair Yarrow Nelson to tell the crowd to be quiet. He threatened to have people removed from the crowd if they used terms like "junk science" or called someone a liar, which he said wasn't allowed under the board's civility code.
Dunes riders showed videos made by Friends of Oceano Dunes that showed Allen talking about silica and then pointed to studies of crystalline silica that they said showed there was no crystalline silica emitting from the dunes. They also pointed to a new study that says offshore algae blooms contribute to PM levels in the area.
Air quality specialist Karl Tupper responded by saying crystalline silica is a distraction, because whatever particulate matter is in the air — whether it's crystalline silica or other forms of silica — is a pollutant that needs to be addressed.
He said three of four samples taken from the Oceano Dunes last year did detect crystalline silica, but at levels below the standard set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"It's possible to see high level of silicon and low level of respirable crystalline silica," Tupper said.
In response to the offshore source of particulates, Fuzie said the study on that "was done to see if there was a source. It was not done to determine how much that source contributes. That's just another potential source that's contributing."
The APCD, in the original complaint, said that the science proving that off-road vehicle activity significantly contributes to emissions from the Oceano Dunes was challenged and upheld in court on two separate occasions.
Next up, State Parks plans to integrate changes directed by the settlement into its ongoing public works plan to redesign the park. Meetings on those changes will be held in San Luis Obispo County on May 22 and Fresno on May 23.
Then, before the settlement can be implemented, State Parks must present the proposed changes to the Coastal Commission. A date has not yet been set for that hearing.