State Parks was ordered to cut Oceano Dunes pollution in half. It says it can’t

Ten months after State Parks agreed to a legal order to reduce air pollution from the Oceano Dunes vehicle park by 50 percent by 2023, the agency published a 160-page document detailing the reasons it can’t.

The report, called the “Draft Particulate Matter Reduction Plan,” says a proposal to plant native vegetation on 500 acres of the park to reduce dust that blows downwind would cost between $6.2 million and $8.3 million, would take more than a decade to accomplish, and would “require substantial reductions in camping and recreational capacity.”

“At this time, it is uncertain if this magnitude of dust control at Oceano Dunes (State Vehicular Recreation Area) is feasible from an economic and logistical standpoint,” the report says.

Instead, the Off-Highway Motor Vehicles Recreation (OHMVR) Division of State Parks, which is under new leadership, suggests renegotiating the goals.

Read about how OHMVR commissioners said ‘It’s time to take the gloves off’ in the fight with air quality officials.

State Parks proposes up to 83 acres of additional permanent dust control measures by 2023, and up to 40 acres of seasonal dust control measures a year. The proposal calls for a 20 percent reduction in beach camping capacity.

Air quality officials blasted the report, calling it unacceptable.

“We’re blindsided by the inadequacy of what we found,” said Gary Willey, director of the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control Board.

A group of riders heads out for a morning tour of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in May 2018. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

On March 8, he met with Dan Canfield, the new director of State Park’s OHMVR division responsible for meeting the terms of the order.

Willey said he has high hopes that State Parks will draft a new, more detailed work plan by April 1, giving the public 30 days to comment on it before a May 1 meeting.

“It’s just the whole process of how they’ve been fighting the environmental stuff at the (OHMVR) division,” Willey said. “It’s engrained in them, and we somehow have to fix that.”

“I don’t believe that their staff is on board with trying to solve this problem,” he said. “The leadership is there to get it done, and we have to work on getting everyone else on board.”

State Parks plan ‘seriously deficient’

State Parks entered into a stipulated abatement order in April 2018 to settle allegations by the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) that the Oceano Dunes park violated several local and state air quality rules by failing to reduce dust emissions that are above the amount that would naturally occur if vehicles weren’t present.

County Public Health officials say the high levels of particulate matter blown into downwind communities is dangerous to respiratory and cardiovascular systems, particularly for children, seniors and pregnant mothers.

By entering the agreement, State Parks avoided thousands of dollars in fines and an order from a hearing board that could have required bigger closures sooner.

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A map shows potential closures in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area for a dust mitigation plan. California State Parks

The state agency was ordered to turn in a work plan by Feb. 1 that would describe how it would fulfill the mandates.

The plan submitted by State Parks was three pages long, prompting the scientists that were supposed to help with the plan to call it “seriously deficient” and lacking in details and benchmarks, according to a Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) report published Feb. 25.

State Parks failed to work with the scientists in creating the plan due to “contracting issues,” and the experts have been working without a contract.

In its report, the SAG said monitoring campaigns and dune restoration must be deployed immediately to ensure reductions in dust emissions and fulfill the timeline of the order.

There is a demonstrated “lack of commitment on behalf of parks to contract and coordinate the recommended startup of activities in early spring 2019, during the critical windy season,” the report said.

Further, scientists said in their evaluation, State Parks “currently appears under-resourced with regard to personnel capable of carrying out such duties.” The group recommended hiring a qualified project coordinator.

“Based on these concerns, the SAG does not accept the Particulate Matter Reduction Plan in its present form,” the report said.

Naturally occurring dust emissions

The director of the county Air Pollution Control District disagreed with State Parks’ assessment and said it is possible for the state agency to clean up the air and reach the goals of the order by focusing on vegetation in the foredunes.

The agency has the money for the ordered actions if it rearranges its budget, Willey said. And there is evidence that less than 500 acres will be needed for native vegetation planting to meet mandated requirements, he added.

There is a misunderstanding about the requirements of the order, Willey said, given his agency’s agreement with State Parks that natural dust emissions do occur.

In its report, State Parks said baseline emissions need to be considered. Willey says they already are.

Air quality officials agree that sand is carried when the wind blows at the Oceano Dunes whether or not vehicles drive there. However, scientific monitoring found that activity on the dunes is responsible for much higher air pollution, according to the APCD.

State Parks said in its report that closing 500 acres would only reduce dust emissions by between 31 percent and 50 percent. But Willey said the agency’s analysis fails to take into account natural occurring emissions for which State Parks is not responsible.

To put it another way, the order requires State Parks only to reduce the dust that scientists believe the agency is responsible for by 50 percent, Willey said, and that is obtainable.

Shooting straw was the first step in a revegetation project on about 20 acres at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area in 2018. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Already, air quality monitors have documented reductions in pollution in comparison to last year, which Willey attributes to 132 acres of dust control measures installed in the park in 2018.

While modeling said there would have been a 12 percent reduction of the dust that isn’t naturally occurring, the park has actually seen a 22 percent decrease in pollution.

“We’ve got quite a ways to go,” Willey said. “But we’ve got something real and we don’t want to lose sight of that. We don’t want to throw our hands up and say it can’t be solved. It can be solved.”

Will State Parks renege on the agreement?

The Tribune contacted State Parks to find out what this means about the future of the order. Here’s what the department said.

Q: State Parks agreed the Stipulated Order of Abatement last year, yet the draft PMRP submitted to APCD Feb. 1 says that “at this time, it is uncertain if this magnitude of dust control at Oceano Dunes SVRA is feasible from an economic and logistical standpoint.” What changed?

A: When the Stipulated Order of Abatement was adopted, it was unknown what type and amount of dust control efforts would need to be implemented to achieve the stated goals. Likewise, it was unknown what potential environmental impacts would arise from implementation of the dust control efforts. The Preliminary Concept Draft PMRP starts to answer those questions.

Through the PMRP process, the state and the project stakeholders are learning what levels of measures may be needed to achieve the goals. These measures will also need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, Endangered Species Act, and other applicable statutes. Actual progress toward the Stipulated Order of Abatement goals will need to be informed by additional monitoring and supported by additional dust control efforts like those proposed in the Preliminary Concept Draft PMRP.

Q: Does State Parks intend to back out of the Stipulated Order?

A: The state is committed to the continuation of cooperative efforts with the SLO APCD to improve regional air quality.

Q: SLO APCD Director Gary Willey called the draft PMRP “woefully inadequate” and “unacceptable.” What is your response to that?

A: The state appreciates the feedback from the SLO APCD and will work with the SLO APCD on revisions to the Draft PMRP.

The State has implemented the preliminary efforts identified in the Stipulated Order of Abatement. Substantial portions of the recreation area have already been fenced-off, excluding public access, and have received dust control measures.

Q: Is State Parks committed to reducing dust by 50 percent in the next four years?

A: The state is committed to the continuation of cooperative efforts with the SLO APCD in reducing dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes SVRA. The science described in the Preliminary Concept Draft PMRP remains unclear on the state’s ability to achieve the stated goals of the Stipulated Order of Abatement. Through this process, the state and the project stakeholders are learning what levels of measures may be needed to achieve the 50 percent reduction, which will then allow for an analysis of potential environmental impacts that would arise from implementation of those measures.

The Preliminary Concept Draft PMRP proposes up to 83 acres of additional permanent dust control measures over the 4-year term, and up to 40 acres of seasonal dust control treatments annually at Oceano Dunes SVRA. These type of efforts have been seen to reduce dust emissions and would improve regional air quality. The proposal also includes a 20 percent reduction in beach camping capacity to accommodate the additional dust treatment exclusion areas.

Q: What were the contracting issues that delayed input from the Scientific Advisory Group in preparation of the PMRP?

A: The department, in compliance with contracting procedures negotiated, drafted, and executed contracts as expeditiously as possible. The process involved the determination of a scope of work for multiple contractors that make up the Scientific Advisory Group, and the negotiation of multiple estimated value of services to determine the amount to be contracted with each contractor.

Q: Would State Parks be more confident in its ability to meet the requirements of the abatement order, if it were directed to do so and provided funding by the State Legislature?

A: The department will as always work hard to implement programs and projects in accordance applicable statutes and to achieve the Department Mission.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com