State parks questions feasibility of Oceano Dunes emissions reduction mandate

California State Parks is raising questions about the feasibility and affordability of a settlement agreement it reached with the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District last year that calls for an approximately 50 percent reduction in emissions from the Oceano Dunes off-road riding area.

For years, the APCD and Nipomo Mesa residents have clashed with state parks and off-road vehicle riders over Oceano Dunes dust flows. In 2011, the air district adopted the Oceano Dunes dust rule, which requires state parks to reduce the amount of particulate matter blowing from the dunes off-road riding area or face fines of $1,000 per day.

In adopting the regulation, the APCD relied on contested studies that concluded off-road vehicles on the dunes were causing pollution on the Nipomo Mesa. Despite mounting evidence indicating the APCD used flawed science, the air district deemed the Oceano Dunes off-road riding area a public nuisance, forcing state parks to agree to measures aimed at reducing dust flows in order to avoid fines.

Last April, state parks and the APCD reached an agreement calling for the closure of portions of the Oceano Dunes to off-road vehicles and the creation of islands of vegetation within the park, even though there were already dozens of acres of fenced vegetation on the dunes. The agreement initially sought to reduce emissions from the dunes by 30 percent, but the APCD hearing board rejected the deal, and only approved the agreement once the emissions reduction target was raised to 50 percent.

As required by the agreement, state parks recently prepared a particulate matter reduction plan that discusses reducing emissions over an approximately four-year period spanning 2019-023. The plan, however, states the dust control measures required in state parks’ settlement agreement with the APCD are unprecedented and questions whether the mandates are feasible.

“At this time, it is uncertain if this magnitude of dust control at Oceano Dunes SVRA is feasible from an economic and logistical standpoint,” the state parks particulate matter reduction plan says.

State parks’ analysis indicates that implementing a total of 500 acres of dust control measures on the dunes, largely consisting of planting new vegetation, would still make it unlikely that the agency would achieve the objective of reducing emissions by 50 percent. The state parks report says 500 acres of dust control measures, including approximately 132 acres of existing controls, would likely reduce emissions by between 31.6 percent and 50 percent. 

The cost of planting vegetation on approximately 413 acres, as would be needed to establish 500 acres of dust controls, would cost between $6.2 million and $8.3 million, according to the state parks report.

Additionally, such measures would “significantly diminish the iconic recreational opportunity” that Oceano Dunes off-road riding area provides. The dust control measures would require substantial reductions in camping and recreational capacity, state parks says in the report.

APCD chief Gary Willey responded to the emissions reduction plan in a letter to state parks saying the agency’s assertion that it cannot comply with the settlement agreement is not acceptable.

“The district believes that compliance is possible and that is supported by last year’s measured PM10 reductions which greatly exceeded expected reductions from fencing that occurred,” Willey wrote in the letter to state parks.

Willey is demanding that state parks make changes to its emissions reduction plan by March 22. A workshop on the emissions reduction plan is scheduled for May 1.

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