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California State Parks could be sanctioned for ignoring scientists on Oceano Dunes dust

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California State Parks could be sanctioned for ignoring scientists on Oceano Dunes dust

Picture of Monica Vaughan
Aerial views of the Nipomo Mesa show a plume of dust that sweeps through the community on windy days.
Thursday, October 3, 2019

The California Department of Parks and Recreation could face sanctions or forced closures at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, after the state agency failed to follow scientists’ recommendations to reduce dust emissions from the popular park.

A hearing board will be convened in November to decide if the agency’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division is in violation of an abatement order to reduce dust that blows from the park into downwind communities.

The action comes after members of another board that oversees air quality regulations in San Luis Obispo County said they were fed up with the state’s lack of ability to comply with clean air rules after years of attempts at enforcement.

“The hammer should fall now,” John Headding, a member of the County Air Pollution Control Board and Morro Bay City Council, said at a Sept. 25 meeting.

Air quality in downwind communities violate clean air standards for PM10 — particulate matter — dozens of times a year, when fine and coarse dust blows from the park during windy days. Regulators say vehicles disrupt the surface of the sand and prevent vegetation growth, leading to higher-than-natural emissions. 

Faced with being found in violation of state and local clean air laws in 2018, State Parks agreed to a settlement that calls for the agency to reduce dust emissions from the OHV park 50% by 2023 and submit annual work plans to show what’s being done and whether it’s working.

But 2019 work toward that goal stalled as scientists and air quality regulators determined the agency’s most recent plan was “critically deficient,” documents show. Two draft plans were rejected, and a public workshop scheduled for Oct. 1 was canceled.

County Air Pollution Control District officer Gary Willey planned to give State Parks a third chance before calling for a hearing that could lead to sanctions, saying that he has a “good working relationship” with State Parks and he sees progress, although the state agency’s duty is to off-road enthusiasts.

But Willey was directed to convene the hearing board by a majority of APCD board members, who questioned State Parks’ commitment to mitigate air pollution that puts downwind communities at risk of respiratory illness.

“We need them to reduce pollution that is violating state and federal standards. That is what we need from them,” ACPD board member and county Supervisor Adam Hill said. “We need from the (district officer) a much more serious and diligent approach to that because our responsibility is health, not politics, not recreation, not getting along. It’s health.”


Among a list of problems scientists identified in State Parks’ 2019 draft work plan, the most critical is a lack of a sustainable foredune.

Historical photos suggest that dunes covered with patches of vegetation used to exist near the shoreline. Reestablishing foredunes is expected to disrupt airflow from the ocean and reduce emissions from the riding area.

Scientists assigned to oversee the plan told State Parks that it needed to fence off areas and plant vegetation to reestablish foredunes in a part of the park that is currently used for camping. Research by the Desert Research Institute has shown the area has the potential to be among the most emissive of sites in the Oceano Dunes during high wind events, and modeling showed planting vegetation there would help.

The Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of State Parks proposed to build a 23-acre foredune. The Scientific Advisory Group said the dune had to be at least 48 acres to be sustainable and if State Parks couldn’t build a larger dune then they should explain why.

Again, In the second draft, the foredune was still 23 acres, and State Parks also failed to answer scientists’ questions, though the agency did propose a temporary closure in another area.

When asked why State Parks’ off-highway vehicle division wouldn’t comply with scientists’ recommended plan for the foredunes, deputy director Dan Canfield told The Tribune that the scientists “don’t need to be concerned with tangible, real world issues,” unlike State Parks.

Specifically, he said that a 48-acre foredune “would be detrimental to shorebird conservation and would prohibit visitor public access.”

“That’s something we’re exploring through our Public Works Plan,” a long-term plan to redesign the park, Canfield said. “We might get there.”

For now, he said, the Oceano Dunes SVRA has to operate under the park’s planning documents. The 23-acre foredune design includes gaps between islands of vegetation that would allow vehicles to pass through.

The off-highway vehicle division is committed to working through the process with the air district, Canfield said, but there is a difference in approach. He told The Tribune in a Sept. 25 call that he is focused on filling in gaps in data, including identifying other sources of dust outside State Parks’ responsibility.

Canfield told The Tribune that he was not averse to being called before the hearing board, saying that he was “neutral.”


Residents who live in the dust plume that blows from Oceano Dunes on windy days lobbied the county board for accountability during the Sept. 25 meeting.

“Please quit stalling. Do your job. Have a sense of urgency,” said Richard Wishner of Nipomo, who identified himself to the board as a victim of the air pollution.

The levels of PM10 seen on the Nipomo Mesa are known to be linked to increased respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including asthma attacks, lung disease and heart attacks.

Following the original abatement order “could be a win-win, including for the OHV park and the growing population of taxpayers on the Mesa. But nothing is happening,” Nipomo Mesa resident Linda Reynolds said. “Quit embarrassing yourselves, everybody.”

Following comments from the public and the board, Willey agreed to convene a meeting of the separate hearing board.

The Air Pollution Control Board also passed a motion brought by county Supervisor Bruce Gibson to direct Willey to convene the hearing board as soon as possible, which Gibson said was necessary so the issue can be “brought to a level of action that can be mandated.”

For years, the APCD board has been split about how and whether to support enforcement actions against State Parks. With two members absent, county supervisors John Peschong and Lynn Compton, the motion passed 6-4.

Arroyo Grande Council Member Jimmy Paulding and San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon were among the board members who supported taking action.

“It seems to me that we have essentially betrayed the people on the Nipomo Mesa and we continue to do so, and also betray our very mission statement itself,” Harmon said. “We’re already late in the game. I would personally feel ashamed to be on the board without taking concrete meaningful action at this point.”

County Supervisor Debbie Arnold and Pismo Beach Mayor Ed Waage were among the dissenting APCD board members. Arnold empathized with State Parks, saying that it takes a long time to move a camping area, while Waage raised concern that potential litigation delays mitigation.

Several lawsuits have been filed on the issue since the APCD first attempted enforcement efforts against State Parks.

“I find it sorry to hear board members fret litigation as a means of choosing to do nothing,” Gibson said at the meeting. In response, Waage criticized Gibson for questioning his motivations.


A hearing board meeting will likely be held in November and there are two possibilities, according to the board chair, Cal Poly engineering professor Yarrow Nelson.

“If State Parks submits a new plan which meets the requirements of the stipulated abatement order (as determined by the Scientific Advisory Group), then the November meeting will be an informational meeting for the hearing board and the public to be apprised of the new plan,” Nelson wrote in an email to The Tribune.

“If State Parks does not submit a new plan that means the requirements of the stipulated abatement order, then the hearing board will consider a nuisance finding and an order of abatement,” Nelson wrote.

The timing, he noted, is critical because the winter planting season is approaching.


Q: What is the Scientific Advisory Group?

A: A group of scientists that the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District and State Parks agreed would evaluate, assess and provide recommendations on the mitigation of windblown dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes. The group includes experts in dune geomorphology, aolian erosion control, air quality modeling, and other disciplines. See a list of scientists on the board here.

Q: What is the hearing board?

A: A five-member board appointed by the county Air Pollution Control District Board to make decisions when there is a conflict between the air district and industry. The hearing board serves as the judicial function to apply rules, while the APCD board adopts rules and regulations. The APCD officer implements and enforces rules. The APCD board is made up of the county Board of Supervisors and representatives of area city councils.

Q: What is the stipulated abatement order?

A: Former APCD officer Larry Allen filed a petition for an abatement order in 2017, asking a hearing board to find that the Oceano Dunes SVRA operated by the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of State Parks is causing a public nuisance. He asked the hearing board to issue an abatement order to provide relief to downwind residents. A year later, State Parks and the APCD entered into a settlement, a stipulated order of abatement, in which the state agency agreed to perform certain research, submit work plans, and ultimately reduce dust emissions to eliminate violations of state air quality standards.

Monica Vaughan reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship

[This article was originally published by The Tribune.]