For years, residents of the Nipomo Mesa have been breathing air polluted with dangerously high levels of tiny dust particles linked to respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis, even lung cancer.
There have been days when the Mesa’s level of PM (particulate matter) pollution has been the worst in the nation, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website.
We’ll say that again: The worst in the nation.
On those bad days, residents close their windows and stay indoors to avoid the dust plume from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which has been identified as a major source of the problem.
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It’s shocking that people who live and work on the Nipomo Mesa have been forced to put up with this as long as they have.
What’s even more shocking is the lack of outrage on the part of officials who are supposed to be safeguarding public health.
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Lynn Compton—who represents the Nipomo Mesa—has focused more attention on securing money for parks in Nipomo than on demanding clean air for her constituents.
Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who chairs the Air Pollution Control Board, has been openly hostile toward Larry Allen, the head of the county air district who has been pushing State Parks to solve the problem.
And Pismo Beach Mayor Ed Wagge, who represents his city on the Air Pollution Control Board, has been outspoken in doubting the validity of the county study that first linked high PM counts to off-roading activities in the Oceano Dunes. (Other studies have since confirmed that conclusion.)
Wagge’s not the only skeptic.
Especially in the off-roading community, there are plenty of “deniers” who believe it’s natural for sand to blow from beaches and dunes, and don’t believe OHVs are a factor.
Some have even tried to pin the blame on Mesa residents for moving there in the first place—overlooking the fact that it was the county that allowed housing to be built there in the first place, and continues to do so.
On April 23, 2017, Nipomo had an air quality index of 336—the worst in the nation, according to the EPA website AirNow. The ‘runner-up’—Denver, Colorado—came in a distant second with a reading of 105. Anything above 301 is considered hazardous.
State Parks has attempted to reduce the amount of dust blowing off the State Vehicular Recreation Area by planting vegetation to anchor the dunes and installing sand fencing.
The overall results, though, have been underwhelming—so much so that the county air district recently served State Parks with a notice of violation for allegedly failing to follow an agreed-upon plan to reduce the dust pollution. The two agencies are negotiating a settlement; if they can’t reach an agreement, the state could eventually be subject to fines.
More conflict is brewing: State Parks has developed a five-year dust control plan that calls for more fencing and vegetation. (State Parks also is exploring the idea of changing the layout of the park to better control off-site dust emissions, but that’s not part of the five-year plan.)
The dust control plan, which will be considered by the state Coastal Commission in September, is not good enough, Allen says.
It doesn’t incorporate recent computer modeling data from the California Air Resources Board—data that identifies areas in the park that produce the most dust pollution. That’s valuable information to have when deciding where to install fencing and plant vegetation.
Allen believes State Parks will need to develop a second dust control plan based on those findings.
The state Air Resources Board essentially agrees with that, but it believes dust control measures State Parks has planned for next year can be adjusted based on the computer modeling.
Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer of the Air Resources Board, told us he’s optimistic that those efforts will “produce significant benefits” next year.
We wish we could share his optimism, but we’ve heard variations of this same story year after year after year. All the while, evidence of the ill effects of PM pollution is building.
A recent Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that even low levels of fine particle pollution can shorten the lives of older residents. (The study involved Medicare patients 65 and older.)
Other studies have found a link between high PM levels and childhood asthma. (That triggers a question: Are childhood asthma rates on the Nipomo Mesa higher than in other local communities?)
The county Health Commission recently issued a strongly worded letter of concern saying many local medical professionals agree their patients’ health has been compromised by PM exposure. That’s valuable information, but it would be much stronger coming directly from the doctors themselves.
Why haven’t these concerned medical professionals spoken out more forcefully? They would have a powerful voice if they joined together to publicly advocate for their patients.
We saw that occur in the Santa Maria Valley in the 1980s, when doctors banded together to share their concerns about the Casmalia Resources toxic waste site, which was accused of polluting the air by placing toxic liquids in uncovered waste ponds. Doctors helped shine a spotlight on the problem, which in turn attracted the attention of state and federal authorities. The dump shut down in 1989 and was declared an EPA Superfund site.
And what about our two state lawmakers, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham and Sen. Bill Monning? Have they demanded action?
They could play a crucial role in ensuring State Parks follows through and, if necessary, in securing funds to make sure dust control measures are in place as soon as possible.
It’s time all our local and state officials stopped paying lip service to the importance of public health, and actually put the well-being of Nipomo Mesa residents and workers first.
PM pollution isn’t some minor nuisance. It’s a major threat to public health. The longer the exposure, the more serious the risk.
We strongly urge all involved agencies to finally give the issue the urgency and attention it deserves. Lives could depend on it.