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California is spending $437K on a ‘wild goose chase’ study. Is a state scientist to blame?

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California is spending $437K on a ‘wild goose chase’ study. Is a state scientist to blame?

Picture of Monica Vaughan
An Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board in San Luis Obispo County convened Monday.
David Middlecamp
The Tribune
Thursday, November 21, 2019

Faced with an order to reduce dust from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the State Department of Parks and Recreation is spending $437,506 to study whether ocean algae is to blame for air pollution downwind of the park.

Several scientific studies identified dust from the Dunes as the main source of poor air quality downwind from the park, yet the state agency agreed to pay researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego “to investigate the link between marine phytoplankton blooms and airborne particulate detected within and downwind of the Oceano Dunes,” according to an agreement uncovered by The Tribune in an on-going investigation.

“This is not a good way to spend money,” County Air Pollution Control District Officer Gary Willey told The Tribune on Wednesday.

A stipulated order of abatement directs State Parks to reduce dust from the Dunes 50% by 2023. It says other sources contribute to the air quality problem, and once identified, State Parks won’t be responsible for those emissions.

But this research, Willey said, “is a wild goose chase.”

The research effort is being led by a California Geological Survey employee with a history of attempting to discredit science that shows off-road vehicles cause dust emissions, including doing so on state time without authorization.

His boss four years ago said publicly that he was troubled by the employee’s breach of professional conduct on the issue.

When confronted about the study at a county Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board meeting on Monday, State Parks Director Lisa Mangat and Deputy Director Liz McGuirk seemed unaware of the study — or at least the cost of it.

When asked by hearing board member Robert Carr whether The Tribune’s reporting about the study was correct, McGuirk responded after a long pause, “We have to go back and look at that.” Later in the exchange, she said the research is ongoing.

“Well, that’s real good news isn’t it?” Carr said sarcastically. “Somebody else referred to you as a cash cow. I guess maybe you are if you’re going to do a $400,000 study to determine whether organics from the ocean are causing part of this problem in light of all the studies that have already been done.”

A spokesperson for State Parks verified the amount and purpose of the study in an email to The Tribune Wednesday.

The study was authorized by the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division. Money for the study come from the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund that’s generated by user fees for OHV recreation.

The contract cost is spread out over three years from 2018 to 2021. The actual reimbursement amount is dependent upon actual amount of work performed and invoiced, a spokesperson said.

SLO COUNTY AIR DISTRICT TO START BILLING STATE PARKS

Willey said he was “quite frankly, a little bit taken aback” about the cost of the study. He hasn’t billed State Parks or issued fees for the cost of his staff’s time on regulation and enforcement actions, he said, because he didn’t want to take away from State Parks’ funds for mitigation projects. Instead, county taxpayers have held the burden of the cost.

“Evidently, I need to start doing that,” he said.

State Parks on Wednesday defended the study, saying that the “Stipulated Order of Abatement between DPR (Department of Parks and Recreation) and the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District requires DPR to conduct studies like this on other sources of PM 10.”

In fact, the Air Pollution control District recommended against State Parks conducting the research in a Feb. 2019 letter.

“It is very unlikely that marine biological material contributes significantly to PM10 measured downwind of the ODSVRA during wind events. The District discourages Parks from devoting further resources towards investigating this as a potential source,” the letter says.

While phytoplankton — microscopic marine life — was found to be present on the Oceano Dunes, there is no indication it is substantial, particularly any amount that would cause the high levels of particulate matter seen on the Nipomo Mesa.

Empirical research has found that the most emissive area of the park is in an area heavily used by off-road vehicles, and an elemental analysis of the particulate matter found in air quality monitors determined it was crustal material, such as sand or soil.

“We don’t have a problem to the north. We don’t have a problem to the south. I can’t imagine that (phytoplankton) only affects the area between those two mile markers,” Willey said.

WHO AUTHORIZED THIS STUDY?

It’s unclear what senior staff approved funding the study, but an agreement summary obtained by The Tribune through a Public Records Act request shows that the project manager is listed as Senior Engineering Geologist Will Harris, an employee of the California Geological Survey.

Harris drew criticism in 2015 when he attended a county public comment period and criticized the county’s science and approach to mitigation efforts on the Dunes while he was on state time.

In response, county Supervisor Bruce Gibson sent a letter to Harris’ boss, state geologist John Parrish.

Parrish wrote back, saying that he was “troubled by what appears to have been a breach of professional conduct on the part of Mr. Will Harris.”

“I believe that Mr. Harris has likely irreparably tarnished his abilities to conduct constructive discussions with scientific objectivity on this project, and (California Geological Survey) will be taking appropriate actions to heal our working relationships with DPR, the APCD, and the county of San Luis Obispo,” the letter says.

When asked this week what, exactly, Will Harris’ job is, a State Parks spokesperson said that the OHV Division entered into an interagency agreement with the California Geological Survey to provide professional earth science assessments on issues related to off-highway vehicle recreation.

Harris is jointly managed by Geological Survey’s supervising geologist and Off-Highway Division’s program manager, a spokesperson said.

The Tribune first learned about his involvement in ongoing phytoplankton research during an interview with OHV Director Dan Canfield and senior environmental scientist Ronnie Glick last summer.

“Will is very, very passionate,” Glick said at the time.

Canfield added: “He has a colorful past on this project.”

Glick continued: “What he is looking at are absolutely valid scientific endeavors. It’s not about the delivery or the individuals. It’s actually about the science that informs the process.”

This story has been updated to include details about who is conducting the study.

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

[This article was originally published by The Tribune.]