Editorial: Public health should trump recreation at the Dunes

Some amount of air pollution is the price we all pay for living in an industrial world, even here in relatively rural San Luis Obispo County.

But it’s unreasonable — even downright arrogant — to expect one group of residents to breathe in harmful levels of pollutants so that others can get their kicks out of riding around on the Oceano Dunes.

That’s outrageous, yet it appears to be the case for one South County community. As Tribune writer David Sneed reported last week, a soon-to-be-released county study has pinpointed off-road recreation on the Dunes as a major cause of the dirty air that’s been an ongoing problem on the Nipomo Mesa, located downwind of the Dunes.

First, we’ve got to ask: What took so long?

High particulate levels have been reported on the Mesa for at least 15 years, so we’re somewhat baffled as to why we are only now getting a definitive report.

On a more positive note, the report does appear to be exceedingly thorough and well researched. Data was collected over three years, and the results were scrutinized by some of the nation’s top air pollution experts.

Despite that, the study already is coming under attack, and it’s bound to get worse in the weeks ahead as the findings are presented in public workshops.

That’s no surprise. Members of the off-roading community — many of whom are from out of the area — zealously lobby for continued access to the Dunes and react vehemently to any hint of new restrictions. They often point out that with so little coastal land open to them, they’re entitled to use at least this small stretch in Oceano.

It’s a persuasive argument; we agree that a wide range of recreational activities should be accommodated on public land.

However, we also believe that public health trumps recreation, and if the well-being of Nipomo Mesa residents is jeopardized by off-roading activities, that’s unacceptable.

We aren’t advocating for complete closure of the Dunes to off-roading, but we do believe it’s imperative to take steps to protect the health of residents — particularly the children and elderly people who are more susceptible to illnesses related to air pollution.

If it hasn’t already been done, data should be collected to document any higher incidences of bronchitis, asthma and other illnesses associated with exposure to particulate pollution on the Nipomo Mesa.

Officials also should look for ways to improve air quality on the Mesa as soon as possible.

Some of the suggestions offered so far — installing screens to block sand particles, watering down the sand and planting vegetation to anchor it — seem pie-in-the-skyish, but if they’ve worked elsewhere, they’re worth considering.

We suspect, though, that a more practical approach may be to limit off-road activity, especially during periods when air pollution levels exceed allowable standards.

If such measures don’t solve the problem, then it’s time to talk about closing all or part of the current OHV area to off-roading.

That would be an unpopular and difficult process, and we hope it doesn’t come to that. OHV recreation is a major source of revenue on the Central Coast, particularly in the South County, and we would not want to see any more economic hardship imposed on local communities.

But consider: When private industry spews dangerous levels of pollution, it faces fines and other sanctions. A recreation facility should be treated the same way.

It should not get a pass, no matter how popular it is or how much revenue it generates for local communities.