Public health must trump recreation

The county and state are embarking on what appears to be a promising first step in reducing dust pollution linked to the Oceano Dunes off-road recreation area. The state has already signed a formal agreement that lays out a detailed work program to test various strategies and develop a long-term plan for curbing particulate releases.

The county Air Pollution Control District board is expected to vote on the agreement today, and the Board of Supervisors will consider it Aug. 3.

This level of cooperation is encouraging, especially because the state did not rush to embrace the study’s controversial conclusion that off-road recreation is a significant contributor to high air particulate counts on the Nipomo Mesa.

Yet failing to act would be unconscionable — especially in light of continuing evidence that air quality on the Mesa is seriously compromised.

Consider: During the first two quarters of 2010, state standards for coarse particulates in the air were exceeded 47 days on the Nipomo Mesa — 11 days in the first quarter and 36 days in the second quarter.

Nowhere else in the county was that air quality standard exceeded during that period of time.

To be clear, the agreement between the state and county doesn’t offer an overnight solution. In fact, no specific strategies for curbing particulate emissions are even mentioned in the draft agreement.

Rather, it will be up to a technical committee to propose pilot projects and, depending on the results of those tests, to ultimately develop a particulate reduction plan.

While that work is going on, the county Air Pollution Control District will be developing a fugitive dust rule for the Dunes that will limit the emissions that can be released. That makes perfect sense. If private industries have to limit emissions that pollute the environment and threaten public health, the same principle should apply to recreation facilities.

As we’ve said many times, we don’t want to see OHVs kicked off the Dunes. We believe off-roaders deserve legal access to public land designated for that purpose — as long as they recreate safely and prudently — and off-roading does contribute significantly to the South County economy.

However, we continue to believe that public health must trump recreation.

We strongly support both avenues that state and county agencies are pursuing — appointing a technical committee to develop a plan to reduce pollution and drafting a rule to limit emissions to a specific level.