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Dust from the dunes: Our ongoing investigation of air quality & health on the Nipomo Mesa

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Dust from the dunes: Our ongoing investigation of air quality & health on the Nipomo Mesa

Picture of Monica Vaughan
Wind brought out windsurfers south of Pismo Pier on August 21. It also contributed to a dusty haze obscuring the view.
The Tribune
Tuesday, September 17, 2019

When strong winds blow on California’s Central Coast, a large plume of dust wafts across the Nipomo Mesa — carrying tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and result in health impacts to downwind communities.

San Luis Obispo County officials have known for decades that air quality in the rural residential area regularly violates state standards, increasing the chance of asthma attacks, and other respiratory and cardiovascular issues for thousands of people who live, work and go to school there. At times, the concentration of particulate matter is the highest in the nation, and the health risk has attracted the attention of the American Lung Association.

Wind blows sand naturally on the coast. It’s how the large sand dunes in the area are formed. But there’s evidence that the unhealthy amount of dust emissions in the Nipomo Mesa is increased by human activity.


The Tribune has reported on the political fight and developments in research for years. Recently, we decided to reach deeper into the issue to take a closer look with the help of USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

We’ve knocked on doors, talked with dozens of parents after school and heard from more than 300 residents about their experiences. We’ve gathered and reviewed data from public agencies, and we’ve purchased air quality monitors and deployed them across the Mesa.

In addition, we’ve interviewed medical researchers, talked to local doctors and hosted an event at Mesa Middle School in Arroyo Grande with a panel of experts.

Over the next several weeks, you can read the stories and watch the videos that we’ve produced to share what we learned. Links for the project and updates on the issue will be posted here.



We’ll break it down for you in our first story: Find out what we know about air quality on the Nipomo Mesa, and the best ways to protect yourself and your family from the health risks of dirty air. Read more here »»


Monitors show that the highest levels of dust are directly downwind from the Oceano Dunes, where the state Department of Parks and Recreation operates a State Vehicular Recreation Area. With 1,500 acres of riding area, the popular off-highway vehicle park is a big part of the local economy, and the most popular campground in the State Parks system.

State Parks’ research indicates that, during strong winds, more dust can be emitted from areas where vehicles are allowed than areas where they aren’t. Still, the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of State Parks has fought the county Air Pollution Control District’s enforcement efforts.

Now there’s a plan to reduce dust emissions from the park by 50 percent by 2023, but state officials have said they’re not sure it’s possible. And a passionate and powerful grassroots lobby of off-road riding enthusiasts — who have watched their recreational area shrink over the decades — has promised to fight additional closures.

Meanwhile, farm workers, children and seniors breathe the air — many of them unaware of the air quality — and the county continues to approve housing developments in the middle of the plume.

Monica Vaughan reported this story as part of her University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellowship with engagement support from the Center’s interim engagement editor, Danielle Fox.

[This story was originally published by The Tribune.]