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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 6th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 39 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 39

Political dustup over the Oceano Dunes continues

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

As some locals foretold when a controversial air quality rule passed for the Oceano Dunes in late 2011, a chainsaw could now cut the tension between the local air pollution control district and state parks.

The disagreement mostly revolves around Rule 1001. Implemented by the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Board, the rule includes penalties for the California Department of Parks and Recreation if it doesn’t work with the district to reduce airborne dust in and around the dunes.

The rule hasn’t fostered participation from state parks, but it has attracted some significant opposition, including a recent legal challenge by the state attorney general.

Now the air district is turning to the governor and his head of the natural resources division for help.

In two 2010 studies, the district found that airborne particulate matter—fine particles of dust that, when inhaled, can cause serious health problems—was a serious problem in the Nipomo Mesa, which neighbors the Oceano Dunes Vehicular Recreational Area. The study found the off-road vehicles break up the harder crust at the surface of the dunes and kick up the softer, finer sand below, which in turn is picked up by the wind and carried to the Mesa.

Those studies have attracted their share of critics, who question the district’s methodology before it attributed poor air quality to recreational vehicle use.

The district board adopted Rule 1001 on Sept. 28, 2011. The board directed staffers to move forward with finalizing rules that would mandate that State Parks draft and enact a comprehensive particulate matter reduction plan, which would be subject to district sign-off. The rule also includes the possibility of fining state parks up to $1,000 for every day particulate matter readings exceed the state standard for particulate emissions. The board gave a rough timeline of 3 1/2 years.

Following the rule’s passage, in January 2012, off-road advocacy group Friends of the Oceano Dunes, Inc., filed a lawsuit against the district, challenging the particulate matter study. Shortly after that, off-road vehicle advocate Kevin Rice filed another suit claiming the district’s executive director violated the Brown Act. A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge combined the two suits.

Things sat idle for a time; district officials worked slowly with state parks staff on a joint particulate matter reduction plan.

But on Oct. 11, the California Attorney General’s Office filed a brief supporting the Friends of the Dunes lawsuit, arguing that the air district’s study never explained how vehicles contribute to excess dust readings, and refuted the idea of a dune “crust.” The office also argued the district has no jurisdiction over the state park.

In a November letter to the air district, State Parks Director Janelle Beland said the department has no intention of filing its own suit and planned to continue cooperating with the district.

Nonetheless, the air district board voted on Nov. 14 to send a letter to the department’s off-road vehicle division chief Phil Jenkins telling him the agencies’ joint efforts aren’t working and need to change.

Air district executive director Larry Allen argued before the board that state parks staffers are insisting on their own air monitoring program that, in district staff’s opinion, appears to be an effort to “cloud” the two district studies’ findings.

“We have put in an incredible amount of staff time and resources with State Parks and tried to do it in a way that would meet our needs and their needs and we have been hamstrung every step of the way,” Allen later told the Sun. “We’re a public health agency and we want to see them succeed but we’re running into very serious road blocks that require a lot of discussion to resolve.”

On Nov. 15, State Parks Deputy Communications Director Roy Stearns shot back with a statement about the district’s approach.

“We were quite concerned at the tone of the [air district] meeting held yesterday, particularly as State Parks has met all deadlines mandated in APCD Rule 1001,” Stearns wrote. “Our goal is [to collect] the most accurate information possible on the shifting sand.”

If there’s one glimmer of hope for better relations between the two agencies, it’s that the district is now dealing with a new state Parks and Recreation director, following the departure of Ruth Coleman, a former economist and lobbyist who resigned amid allegations that the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus funds as some 70 state parks faced closure due to budget cuts.

Coleman was replaced just this month by retired U.S. Marine Corps. Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson.