Editorial: ­Improving air quality must be a top priority

For years, residents of parts of the Nipomo Mesa have been breathing in unhealthy air that often exceeds state standards for particulate pollution.

Today, regulators are doing something about it. The staff of the county Air Pollution Control District will outline a proposed dust control rule that will limit the level of particulates allowed to drift from the state’s Oceano Dunes off-highway vehicle park.

Under the proposal, emissions from the OHV area —which have been scientifically linked to poor air quality on the Mesa — will be measured and compared to air samples from nonriding areas.

Some minor variations are allowed, but if readings from the OHV area are markedly higher, the State Parks Department could be fined up to $1,000 per day. It will be up to State Parks to develop a plan to keep emissions within allowable limits.

This is a reasonable approach, and we strongly urge the district board to sign off on the plan.

Granted, it won’t be popular with some OHV enthusiasts, who dispute whether off-roading is responsible for high particulate counts on the Mesa. However, we don’t believe the measures being discussed — which include replanting vegetation and putting up physical barriers such as fences and trees — are too much to ask in exchange for protecting the health of South County residents.

We are disappointed, though, that the state will have 31⁄2 years to implement a plan.

Air Pollution Control Officer Larry Allen believes that’s a realistic timeline, given the work that must be done. State Parks will first have to develop a plan, he said, and will also have to seek approval from various agencies, including the state Coastal Commission. It’s also likely that an environmental impact report will be required.

“We don’t want to set someone up for failure,” Allen told us. “But we don’t want a public health issue to continue any longer than we should have to.”

We understand that permitting takes time. We also agree that it’s important to get this right. However, State Parks isn’t starting at square one. Pilot programs conducted over the spring had encouraging results. In one experiment, bales of straw were strategically placed to block moving sand, and in another, vegetation was planted. Both techniques reduced particulate emissions by 90 percent.

With that in mind, we urge the district board to require faster action. Shorten the time frame by at least 12 months; that would still give State Parks 21⁄2 years and, if necessary, an extension could be granted if more time is needed.

Also, based on the success of the pilot programs, couldn’t interim, temporary measures — such as installing bales of straw — be taken while a permanent plan is developed?

Bottom line: We commend the county and the state for making progress on this contentious issue, but we believe that protection of public health demands more expedient action.

Nipomo Mesa residents have waited long enough; improving the quality of the air they breathe must be a top priority.

If you go ...

The county Air Pollution Control District board meets at 9 a.m. today at the County Government Center. The board will consider the proposed dust control rule for the Oceano Dunes but will not take final action.