County official admits to manipulating air quality forecasts

August 1, 2011


Manipulations of air quality forecasts in a south San Luis Obispo County region caused as many as 100 days to be given “yellow,” moderate alert, rather than “green,” safe air quality, status.

An official at a San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District board meeting last week admitted the air quality status in Nipomo and Oceano had been tweaked to project moderate alerts—requiring caution in asthmatics—on at least 100 days when they should have been green, or safe.

The Air Quality Index (AQI), a federal standard, simplifies pollution levels on any given day to a color code for public health notices: “green” is good; “yellow” signifies a moderate alert; “orange” is unhealthy for sensitive groups; “red” represents unhealthy for everyone; and “purple” means the air is very unhealthy to breathe.

At a July 27 district board meeting, Air Pollution Control Officer Larry Allen confirmed they have been adding five points to the daily air quality index forecast for the Nipomo and Oceano region.

Offsetting the index has frequently resulted in wrong predictions, issuing “yellow,” or moderate alerts, when in actuality at least 100 of those alerts were “green” safe air days.

The fact was disclosed during the public comment session of the meeting, where Kevin Rice, an advocate for off-road recreation at the dunes, presented an analysis of air quality forecasts compared to final daily actual indexes over the last 10 months.

Rice found the air quality predictions appeared to be artificially fixed, in some cases making people believe they were breathing bad air.

In the Nipomo West region, nearly one-third of the time the district was informing the public pollution levels would be moderate, coded as a “yellow” health alert, when in fact it turned out to be a “green,” healthy air day. At that rate, 100 days a year are miscoded to a higher level, Rice explained noting that this is the only area of the county where the numbers are increased.

Allen confirmed Rice’s findings but defended the strategy as “playing it safe” to protect children and sensitive members of the public.

“We have gone on the side of conservatism, and gone slightly down below, so that we can forecast a violation of the state standard using the AQI system,” Allen said. “I actually kind of like the results that he [Rice] showed because you know, we’re pretty darn close in our forecast. So that explains the difference.”

However, the district uses the federal AQI color system rather than a state program to communicate air pollution levels.

In addition, within the last year more than 90 percent of the “yellow” health alert days for the Nipomo West region were caused because of  PM 2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) pollution levels.  And the state does not have a daily standard for this pollutant. The Nipomo West region includes Nipomo, west of U.S. Highway 101, Nipomo Mesa, Oceano and the Oceano State Park.

Through nine stations around the county, the district constantly monitors levels of pollutants in the air including ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and carbon monoxide.

A moderate forecast means the air quality is acceptable, but for people who are unusually sensitive to ozone, such as those with severe asthma, they may experience respiratory symptoms. These people may opt to stay indoors and limit physical activity on these code “yellow” days, as opposed to code “green” forecasts where air pollution is expected to pose little or no risk.

Critics, like Rice, contend the public is being misinformed and that forecasts should be distributed as true and actual, not inflated, predictions.

Some county schools participate in the pollution control district’s “Clean Air Kids” marketing program and are regularly alerted of the forecasted air quality color code. Some schools post colored flags to inform students and parents of whether it is safe to be outside and breathe the air.

Daily air quality forecasts are also distributed to residents through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Air Now website and email subscriber system, in addition to other media when unsafe air conditions are anticipated.

Distributed through Air Now, a recent forecast that predicted code “yellow” and windy conditions warned: “Very sensitive individuals such as infants, as well as children and adults with existing respiratory or heart conditions may experience adverse health effects during blowing dust periods. If blowing dust and sand is visible in the air, county officials recommend all adults and children avoid strenuous outdoor activity, remain indoors as much as possible, and set any heating/air conditioning/ventilation systems to recirculation.”

“The public relies on these forecasts and largely does not see the actual AQI reported at the end of the day, resulting in misconception, alarm and misinformation about our local air quality,” Rice said.

Rice has complained to the EPA and informed some local school districts of the bias in forecasting.






Larry, you are one lousy sob. What a complete waste of taxpayer dollars to support you and your lousy cronies. You have been and will always be a loser in my eyes. I got the whole man power excuse from you years ago because there are so many lazy people in your office, then you manipulate data when there are serious decisions that can be made from it.. Rot in hell!


“Allen confirmed Rice’s findings but defended the strategy as “playing it safe” to protect children and sensitive members of the public”

They’re just playing it safe to protect children and sensitive members of the public even when the air quality is good!! What a load of cr@p. The sky is falling! Special interests groups have so much influence over our govt. both on the right and the left. This is solely due to the actions by groups trying to close the beach IMO.

Last week someone in this forum spoke against the OHV area of the beach because the OHVers clog up the fire dept. and hospital with the injured people from out there. People ie Nell go on about how bad it is for the environment, they go on about sand causing poor air quality (which admittedly from Larry this is for the most part a lie) They go on about the deaths. In reality they don’t clog up the hospital, they don’t get injured anymore than local kids playing sports. The people at the dunes aren’t hurting the environment anymore than the people that drive down to Disneyland. As of yesterday there have been 14 deaths in Yosemite just in this year. Why don’t they also advocate to close Disneyland and Yosemite?

Leave the dunes alone, let those people have thier little space as a matter of fact give them back the space that the govt as already taken and let the businesses in the Five cities area stay afloat.


Why don’t they leave them alone. One word. N.I.M.B.Y.’s


TQ, about the sand….the problem with breathing and the sand isn’t the sand itself, but the very fine crust that forms on the top of the sand. It helps stop erosion.

It’s when this fine silty crust gets broken up and airborne that there can be medical issues.


The fine crust that forms on the top of the sand is gone as soon as the sun comes out (which is usually by noon each day). The plants that might shade the dunes longer are also considered non native weeds by the conservationists that need to be eradicated.

I simply think this “fine crust” justification is bogus.


Just what I learned in soil science at CalPoly.


Mary, I know that this is one topic that we won’t agree on. People have been riding on those dunes since there were cars to drive on them and I feel that the state does a good job at managing them. Although it’s not something that I do, I like that I see families out there together and although as with anything there are flakes and jerks it is also a healthy family activity. I also feel that the Five Cities will dry up and become another Guadalupe without the revenue generated by those tourist.

Regarding the fine dust, I have yet to see any proof of this actually being an issue. I’ve read the APCD reports on this and watched the meetings and to me this PM argument just doesn’t hold up. Although IMO their studies don’t hold up for arguments sake lets say that they do. To me those complaining are the type that buy a home next to an airport and then complain about the planes. Plus I just don’t buy this theory about the cars breaking the crust. I’ve been around other dunes and I’ve read about other dune areas without cars on them and I see the same PM pattern. On windy days the wind blows and breaks that crust, that is how the dunes are formed. If there was an unbreakable crust then there wouldn’t be dunes, the sand breaks up from the friction of the wind blowing the sand over the sand. I have lived here long enough to remember that the people on the mesa were trying to close down the oil refinery because they said that it was causing air quality issues. I remember when the people on the mesa were complaining that the farmers fields down below were causing poor air quality. I remember when I read that the open burn laws were causing air quality issues. I remember reading that the many dirt roads were causing air quality problems. I remember hearing that the mesa is actually built on fine dirt/sand which causes poor air quality. To me, the argument against the use of the OHV area just doesn’t hold up. There are disabled and elderly people that could never get to the ocean if they couldn’t drive down there. If we take the cars off what’s to prevent developement on those dunes? The homes on the Strand area are build on dunes, no one stopped them from building on the dunes.

Regarding the smog emitted from the vehicles. I hate that the govt. won’t mandate that car manufacturers be required to make more fuel efficient and less smog emitting vehicles. But that’s not my fault and it’s not the fault of the people that use the dunes. It’s takes just as much fuel/energy/natural resources for me to drive my family down to Disneyland or up to San Fran. as it takes a family to ride on the dunes for a weekend. Also lets not forget the Disneyland was built on very fragile property. My point is that if I’m allowed to visit Disneyland, Yosemite, Tahoe etc., because I enjoy those areas then why can’t these people do what they enjoy, there is no more of an impact from people at the dunes then there is by people driving through Yosemite or any other vacation destinations. The fuel that plane uses is crazy, so those that argue against the OHV because of the fuel have better not fly.

I feel strongly about this. I don’t want to be hypocritical and I believe that is what I would be if I fought to keep people off of those dunes.


My objection to the ATVs is a bit more philosophical. I never did believe the nonsense that they were the cause of pollution problems on the Nipomo mesa. I’m bothered by the fact that these things are a blatant waste of a valuable resource (oil) for no reason other than for some sort of unexplained gratification. Seeing families doesn’t make it any better. I had great times with my family, both when I was a kid and when my own kids were young. We didn’t have to burn any energy other than what we needed for transportation to have a great time.

This isn’t to say that an ATV has no purpose. I have driven more than my share in my work in the wine business. I just don’t see them as recreational vehicles. As far as the businesses in Pismo/Oceano/Guadalupe, I’m betting they’d be fine if the dunes were closed to ATVs. There would be a neater, cleaner visitor to the area.


I can tell you with certainty that many of the 5 city area businesses wouldn’t be fine if the dunes were closed. Many of them had signs up a couple of years ago showing their support of the OHV community.

So your family never took you on any vacations winedude? You never flew anywhere or drove anywhere for the sole reason of recreating? Your family always walked to thier vacation destinations? I certainly hope that you haven’t ever taken an airplane to a vacation destination. I took a wonderful vacation with my family to Yellowstone. I’m sure that we used more fuel/oil on that vacation than anyone on those dunes uses while vacationing at the dunes. I refuse to be a hypocrite.

BTW, Guadalupe has no business because they don’t have OHV recreation on their dunes.


Read the part where I said that fuel was used for transportation. And I currently fly all over the world, usually coach. I don’t have an issue with fuel for transport. I just wish it was a whole lot cleaner…

Kevin Rice

Do you fly for business/leisure or both? Are you opposed to leisure travel, long-distance and/or local? Travel to ski, hike, view the Grand Canyon, etc.? Are you opposed to the shipment of leisure items to local retailers? How about using gas to go see a movie?

There are a lot of value judgments that ensue when we start down the road of evaluating personal choices for merit approval by all.


I don’t think we can be sure of what, if any role, the destroyed crust plays in any air pollution that may–or many not be–experienced on the Nipomo Mesa.

I do think we can be sure that the crust serves a vital purpose in the Oceano Dunes environment.

I don’t think the needs of a few businesses trump the needs to protect unique environments. Businesses often have to adapt to change in regulations or values of the citizenry where they operate.


QUOTING TQUEEN: “Mary, I know that this is one topic that we won’t agree on. People have been riding on those dunes since there were cars to drive on them and I feel that the state does a good job at managing them. ”


I think that is taking a very short-term look at damage that is being done to a fragile environment that will impact all that depend on it for a long time.

THe people in Texas are getting a good dose of humility for their greedy gobbling up of their resources, especially water. The parts of the aquifers upon which they depend that go dry will likely never be able to hold water again. In other words, the more they use now the less they will be able to use later. There is a point at which anything resembling society as we know it now will not be able to survive on that land.

Why can’t these people do what they enjoy? Well, if I was as selfish as they are, I would say “Because when they do what they like to do it makes that area unavailable to do what I want to do.”

I really don’t think Disneyland is the best example for this discussion. It is such a monstrosity of fakeness—the idea of something like that having any relationship to the unique Oceano Dunes environment makes me gag.


Typo, this is one thing on which we agree!


I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this is a common practice within the entire State of California. It’s all about promoting an agenda and making money. It would be interesting to see someone investigate the readings in other sections of the State. By the way, aren’t the new economy breaking regulations that are being forced upon the citizens of California based upon many of these readings?


I would support getting abolishing the California Air Resources Board ( CARB ) as yet another unelected body to which the legislature has given away their power. Air pollution controls would be enacted only in those areas where the emperical data demonstrates that air quality is consistently below some recognized threshold level.

As it is CARB controls the entire huge state of California, much of which doesn’t need to be controlled by them. As an example close to my heart, CARB administrative law has made it impossible to modify, register and tag a dirt bike for street use, even if it gets better milage than any car on the road and can be made to pass the standard motorcycle emissions criteria.


Pure nonsense!!! If the bike can pass the emissions standards, as well as noise standards, the thing should be licensed. What is CARB thinking?

Kevin Rice

Interested parties may view the presentation given to the air district board, and the responses of Larry Allen and Bruce Gibson here:


Ya think that some of our “scientists” do the same thng wit global warming? I wonder…


I’d give you ten thumbs up if I could. I have been saying the same for years..


The same thing applies to the Endangered Species List and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Good job, Kevin.


Like the non-endangered Snowy Plovers who are are the cause of much of the dunes being off-limits to even walk upon!


A recent article on NPR said 97% of scientists are convinced that global warming is happening and that it is caused by human activity, but almost 50% of the public is confused by Fox News and other ideologically-based media.

Even if some scientists play loose with the numbers, most would not because it would skew the results of their studies into related subjects – biology, energy, whatever it is. But actions like APCD’s certainly don’t lend credibility to science. Bad move, Larry et. al.

I think that with the record-breaking heat waves going on now, and generally weird weather happening globally, most people are coming to realize global warming is a fact – with tremendous consequences for us and all life on Earth.


As we know, never before in history has it been hot in the summer.


Reframing the argument into the absurd is basically an admission that you cannot make your argument by a more honest means.


I agree Turquoise. Although I’m for the OHVers in the dunes I do agree that we are definitely causing some major and at this point perhaps un-reversible damage to the environment.

I truly believe that cars including OHV can be made cause little to no carbon footprint. But until the govt. mandates that the car companies start using alternative energy to power cars then we will all continue to polute the earth. Although I’m a bleeding heart, I do drive. I do hurt the environment, I’m as guilty as the people at the dunes as far as leaving a carbon footprint.

The APCD do make the legitimate scientists and environmentalist look bad. That really angers me because it hurts the cause that many of us fight for.


Okay, I don’t want to appear like an idiot (although I regularly do), but what in the world would be their motivation to falsely predicting “moderate” instead of “good”?

Nipomo has been hit with fines over the air quality, so I guess it could be the increased income? Doesn’t make sense to me, though.

Is the County planning a new big development in the area that is now being used for the off-roading?

Understand, I don’t like the off-roading there AT ALL, but I loathe dishonesty, especially from the government.

You know, the irony of this is that some parts of the government that controls our lives spends so much effort to divide and split the citizenry (especially around election time), and then turns around and pulls a stunt like the County just did, which actually UNITES groups which usually would be in opposition.

Kevin Rice

@Mary: Good comments. You asked, “what in the world would be their motivation to falsely predicting ‘moderate’ instead of ‘good’”?

A man knocks on your door and attempts to convince you that your carpets are dirty. That man sells vacuum cleaners.

Short answer: $$$


I don’t know…to risk being caught in such a scam. It seems like a big risk for a politician to take.

But then, since I moved here, I have been regularly shocked at the corruption that is outed on nearly a daily basis. So what do I know.


Kudos to Kevin for highlighting the discrepancies! I have mixed feelings about the vehicles on the dunes, but it is a popular activity that has been legal for quite some time. It seems to me that inflating the AQI values by 10% is a big deal. It portrays the RVs on the dunes as a problem that needs a solution.

I’m with Mary on this one when it comes to dishonesty. I wish that we’d clean up our local politics. I’m so disgusted by the frequent problems that come to light.

Thanks to Kevin and also CCN for sharing this with us.


Great Job Kevin !


Ah, the old “protect the children” excuse! I love it… caught with their not-so-dirty pants down, and they try to spin it as a benefit for the children and other sensitive members of the public. You know, honesty also works – tell the public how it is, clean or dirty for any given day, and let THEM make the decision. I’ll guaran-damn-tee you that the asthmatic or other “sensitive” person has much more skin in the game than some bureaucrat.

Kudos to Mr. Rice for being vigilant on this.

connected one

I’m really glad there are people out there like Kevin Rice who hold the county accountable for the disemination of misinformation about our air quality. It has caused quite a stir amongst the people living on the mesa. Shame on them, they should have disclosed that they were adding those additional 5 points on.