Opinion

Do any politicians care about clean air, or is Oceano Dunes fight only about fun and money?

California Coastal Commission might ‘phase out’ OHVs at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Area

The California Coastal Commission will consider phasing out off-highway vehicles (OHVs) at the Oceano Dunes its meeting in SLO on July 11.
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The California Coastal Commission will consider phasing out off-highway vehicles (OHVs) at the Oceano Dunes its meeting in SLO on July 11.

It’s disappointing — but not really unexpected — that Republican lawmakers like Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Devin Nunes and state Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham would voice unequivocal support for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area — while not even paying lip service to health concerns of Nipomo Mesa residents.

In a letter to the California Coastal Commission, which meets Thursday to discuss the future of the popular off-road park, McCarthy and Nunes urged commissioners to reject any further restrictions on off-roading.

“We are concerned that if implemented, these recommendations would not only deny our constituents and others the ability to fully access their public lands for OHV recreation, but also have significant adverse economic impacts to the local economy,” they wrote in a joint letter.

Cunningham also opposes efforts to “further limit off-road vehicle access to the dunes and state park.”

He goes on to extol its economic benefits: “It is a major contributor to South San Luis Obispo County’s tourism industry. Hundreds of businesses rely upon these visitors to generate revenue and employ local residents.”

The letters never mention “health” or “air quality” or “Nipomo Mesa,” even though there are times when the particulate pollution on the Mesa has been the worst in the nation.

What’s even more disappointing, though, is state Sen. Bill Monning’s near silence on the issue.

Monning, a Democrat who will be termed out at the end of next year, has been on a crusade to protect public health. He’s sponsored multiple bills to slap warning labels on sugary soft drinks and has excoriated the soft drink industry for lobbying against anti-soda efforts. He’s also been a big proponent of clean drinking water, advocating for a statewide tax to help communities with tainted water supplies.

Yet when it comes to fighting air pollution in his own district, Monning has been ... quiet.

When we reached out to him for comment on the dunes, here’s what we got: “While the Oceano Dunes are an economic driver for the region, it is important to balance public health and environmental conservation with public access and recreation. I am aware of the upcoming Coastal Commission vote, and will continue to monitor the issue and its potential impacts on the community.”

Way to wimp out, senator!

A strong proponent of public health would make it clear that clean, breathable air must come first — before the economy.

And if we want to talk about “economic drivers,” do the residents of the Nipomo Mesa, who pay property taxes, shop at local stores, eat at local restaurants and hire local residents for a range of services, from home maintenance to dog walking, contribute nothing to local economy?

Further, when we’re in the midst of a housing crisis, do we really want to write off an entire area of the county as a threat to public health — at least for the old, the young and the infirm? All for the greater good of a strong economy?

Apparently some of us are.

In a recent column in New Times, conservative columnist Al Fonzi — who identifies himself as a hazmat specialist — compares the affected areas of the Mesa to Love Canal, the upstate New York neighborhood where residents were forced to evacuate because their homes were built atop a landfill oozing toxic waste.

Fonzi suggests moving Mesa resident away from the hazard: “Homes can be red-tagged and condemned by the county health officer. While this may seem harsh, every homeowner was given disclosure statements about local hazards when they purchased their homes yet they chose to buy there..”

No, not every homeowner was given a disclosure statement. People have been living on the Mesa for decades, back when San Luis Obispo County officials were scratching their heads over high particulate counts, and blaming them on dirt roads and the oil refinery — neither of which proved to be true.

And unlike Love Canal, there is a way to reduce the environmental threat through dust control measures, such as planting vegetation and installing sand fencing. Some of that’s already been done, and there has been a reduction in air quality violations.

If improvement continues, off-roading should be allowed to continue.

If not, off-roading at the dunes needs to be sharply curtailed or prohibited altogether.

Because this isn’t about “balance.”

This is about putting public health first — period.

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