SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY — According to the American Lung Association's 2017 State of the Air report, which was released on Wednesday, San Luis Obispo County failed to meet the national standard for year-round particle pollution for the first time ever.
The report is based on data collected from 2013 to 2015, the most recent years from which the data is available.
According to San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Larry Allen, the failure to meet national standards for particulate pollution stems from problems at the Oceano Dunes. When vehicles repeatedly drive over sand in designated riding areas, the sand begins to break down in a processes called saltification, Allen said. Eventually the sand is broken down into a powdery consistency and is light enough for the strong coastal winds to pick up and blow around, creating air quality problems downwind of the riding areas.
"Dust plumes are an issue, but the biggest issue is the constant disturbance of the soil," Allen said. "If you walk in a riding area you'll sink in the sand, but if you walk in a non-riding area you stay on top of the sand."
According to Allen, several years of higher than normal winds led to a slight increase in the amount of particulate pollution in the air over a three year period and ultimately the failing grade from the American Lung Association.
"It doesn't mean that particulate pollution has necessarily increased, it means that the data caught up with the three years of high winds that we gave them," he said. "Not to discount the findings, we do have a very significant pollution problem in the area."
The Air Pollution Control District along with the County of San Luis Obispo and the California Air Resources Board have been working to mitigate particle pollution problems in the area for years now, Allen said. Efforts have included the installation of 40 acres of wind fencing at the eastern boundary of the riding area causing a majority of the problems, but the fencing has had a limited effect on blowing dust and Allen said that other measures are being considered for implementation this year.
"This year we'll be installing some fencing closer to the shoreline and closer to the camping area to try and capture the moving sand before it gets airborne," he said.
The Air Resources Board is also working on creating atmospheric models of the area based on meteorological data and data from censors located at the dunes in order to run computer simulations to workshop possible mitigation solutions, which could include strategically reducing vehicle emissions, planting new vegetation in riding areas, additional fencing and more.
"(The model) calculates downwind concentrations of particulate matter based on all of the data that was put into it," Allen said. "We're currently doing a sensitivity analysis to calibrate the model and make sure it can predict fairly accurately the known concentrations. Once the predictions are dialed in, we can run an analysis and see what happens when we (implement certain mitigation measures). "
The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. The report shows that California saw significant spikes in particle pollution, which comes from diesel engine exhaust, wood-burning devices and wildfires.
“These tiny particles, known as soot, can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. They can also cause lung cancer and early death,” said Fresno area physician Dr. Alex Sherriffs.
Bakersfield topped the list for the worst air pollution in the nation, coming in first for the worst short-term particle pollution and second for the works year-round particle pollution behind only the Visalia-Porterville area.
Jessica Romero and her husband, Eugene, live in Bakersfield and both of their sons have asthma.
“The poor air quality in Bakersfield has had a huge impact on our family,” Jessica Romero said. “The hardest days are when we have to tell the boys they can’t go outside to ride their bikes or play soccer because of the bad air.”
In California and nationwide, the number of unhealthy days for ozone has decreased, thanks to the success of the federal Clean Air Act as well as state and local air pollution control programs that clean up major sources of emissions.
“While California continues to move forward with policies like strong standards to reduce vehicle emissions, the federal government wants to move backwards,” American Lung Association President and CEO Olivia Diaz-Lapham said. “We call on President Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and members of Congress to fully fund, implement and enforce the Clean Air Act for all air pollutants — including those that drive climate change and make it harder to ensure healthy air for all Americans.”