Oceano Dunes dust rule to stay unchanged while lawsuits are resolved

Wind fencing has been installed at the Oceano Dunes to slow winds and control dust.
Wind fencing has been installed at the Oceano Dunes to slow winds and control dust. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A controversial rule intended to reduce the amount of dust blowing onto the Nipomo Mesa from the Oceano Dunes will stay unchanged indefinitely while San Luis Obispo County air officials await the resolution of three lawsuits challenging the rule.

The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District board of directors voted 10-2 Wednesday to postpone indefinitely making any changes to the district’s Rule 1001 until county trial courts rule on three lawsuits filed by the group Friends of Oceano Dunes challenging the validity of the rule.

Ray Biering, the air district's attorney, said the lawsuits will likely have to go to trial in the local Superior Court to be settled. He did not know how long that process would take, so the air board voted to postpone the discussion of and action on the dust rule to an unspecified date.

This means the controversial dust rule will stay in effect indefinitely, Biering said. The air district and State Parks Department will continue working together to find a way to reduce the high levels of dust blowing onto the Mesa as required by a consent decree.

The air district issued Rule 1001 in 2011, requiring State Parks to reduce the amount of dust blowing off the Oceano Dunes and onto the Mesa to near background levels.

In March 2013, State Parks and state and local air officials signed a consent decree to cooperatively find a way to reduce dust levels.

At a meeting in May, the air board discussed the possibility of replacing the consent decree, which tends to be a ponderous legal process, with a more flexible memorandum of agreement. They could come to no agreement and postponed the discussion until Wednesday.

Larry Allen, air pollution control officer, said a memorandum of agreement would be insufficient because it does not give him enforcement authority against State Parks. In the end, the air board voted to stick with the consent decree because it appears to be working.

“The consent decree process was slow to start but is picking up speed,” Allen said. “We have had to learn to be flexible and let the process start working, and it is working.”

Two air board members, Supervisor Debbie Arnold and Arroyo Grande City Councilwoman Barbara Harmon voted against sticking with the consent decree in favor of pursuing a memorandum of agreement with State Parks.

Arnold said she was frustrated with the slow progress of finding a way to curb the blowing dust. She said a more flexible memorandum of agreement might help.

Dust blowing onto the Mesa is among San Luis Obispo County’s most vexing environmental problems. Records kept by the air district show that air quality on the Mesa exceeds state health standards for particulate matter 78.5 times a year. High particulate levels have been linked to asthma and other lung problems, as well as cardiovascular disease.

Since the consent decree was signed in 2013, State Parks has spent $4.4 million in recent years installing air-quality monitoring stations and experimenting with installing wind fences and hay bales in the dunes as well as replanting native vegetation.

Efforts to curb blowing dust were not successful in 2014. This year, State Parks has expanded its use of wind fences from 15 acres to 40 acres, said Chris Conlin, deputy State Parks director for the Off Highway Vehicle Division.

State Parks and the air district will have to analyze the air monitoring data over the next couple of months to determine whether this year’s expanded dust-control measures were successful, Conlin said.

State Parks has also installed a new air-quality monitoring station in the vegetated part of the dunes that will provide air officials with readings of natural levels of dust in the dunes that can be compared with dust levels blowing from the riding area of the park. Studies have shown that most of the dust blowing on the Mesa originates from the riding area.