In Nipomo, Democratic state Senate candidate takes heat over Oceano Dunes dust

At a campaign speaking engagement before a crowd of mostly retired, politically progressive voters, Jerry Brown’s former state Natural Resources secretary, John Laird, should have been in his element.

But these residents of the windswept Nipomo Mesa — where particulate matter blowing from the nearby Oceano Dunes routinely causes dangerous breathing conditions — were not lobbing softballs.

At one point, an attendee told him that he and any candidate needs to “grow some balls” to fix air quality there.

Laird, a former Santa Cruz mayor who is running to replace termed-out Democratic state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, next year, formerly served in the Brown administration, overseeing State Parks during a battle over efforts to curb dust blowing onto the Mesa from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Some of the airborne particulate matter recorded on the Mesa has been attributed to off-road vehicle activity.

Tough questions for candidate

Laird spoke Thursday night as a guest at the Progressive Women’s Forum meeting at the Monarch Dunes Golf Club.

But after a few short questions about housing, the closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and the future of PG&E, moderator Linda Reynolds asked about a topic that was “dear to (the group’s) hearts” — air quality, and what’s being done to improve it.

The group’s contention with Laird? As secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency from 2011 until January, Laird oversaw State Parks, which operates the Oceano Dunes recreational area.

Despite agreements and regulations mandating action, many Nipomo Mesa residents and environmental activists believe the agency has and continues to drag its feet to fix the health problem posed by the airborne dust.

Many among the Thursday group accused the former natural resources secretary of hesitating or taking no action because it’s a politically polarizing local issue.

“It wasn’t exactly that I took no action,” Laird responded, explaining that he has visited the Dunes and met with local leaders many times. “A lot of things are done behind closed doors.”

He said that “the vice is closing” on State Parks from various state and local agencies that will ultimately succeed in forcing the agency to comply with air-quality standards. He said residents should trust in that process as opposed to pressuring lawmakers for legislation, which Laird said would be a “crap shoot.”

One Nipomo Mesa resident said that given litigation filed over the issue by pro-off-road activists Friends of the Oceano Dunes, the matter could go before the Supreme Court before the state is forced to mitigate the dust.

“And we’ll all be dead,” the unidentified man said. “I think (it will take) some political will, starting with the governor, and maybe you have his ear (based on his past job).”

john laird photo
John Laird, who served as the head of the California Natural Resources Agency under former Gov. Jerry Brown, is running to replace Bill Monning in the state Senate. Courtesy photo

“Well, I’m going to work on that,” Laird responded.

“Well, political will is what we’re asking for, John,” the moderator Reynolds told him. “And I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know if people in here are going to run out and say, ‘Gee, I’m supporting John Laird.’”

She added: “Because we want to see some real firmness from our state officials. ... We want our officials to do their jobs.”

“Your question is totally fair — is there political will? And there is,“ Laird responded. “The question is what is the best way to pursue it to success? ... And there are a number of things on the menu.”

At one point, in response to a question from an Oceano resident who said she is disappointed he never visits the community, Laird drew jeers when he responded: “I’ve come to Oceana.”

To a question of whether raising entrance and other fees to the Oceano Dunes could work to limit the number of vehicles there, Laird said that would equate to limiting equal access to the park.

“If suddenly only the rich people can afford to pollute, that doesn’t quite get us there, either,” he said.

Lard calls forum a ‘healthy exchange’

On Friday, Laird sent a statement to The Tribune in response to questions about the event, calling the Q&A a “healthy exchange” that “clearly got to the heart of the air-quality issue.”

“In the past few months, I have met with many stakeholders, read documents given to me, and walked the Dunes area,” Laird wrote in the statement. “I endorsed the mitigation measures proposed by the Coastal Commission staff. I will work hard to earn community members’ confidence by emphasizing public health concerns going forward on this issue.”

The statement added: “I heard the message loud and clear about public health, and it would be my goal to ensure that public health is the first priority in this matter as a state senator.”

The 17th state Senate District for which Laird is running encompasses all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz counties, as well as portions of Monterey and Santa Clara counties.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.