Air quality district internal emails expose manipulations
November 15, 2011
By KAREN VELIE and LISA RIZZO
(Editor’s note: This is the second in a multi-part series about questionable activities of the San Luis Obispo County Air Quality Control District. Part one was Air quality district’s bloated salaries. See Alleged flaws in the study at the bottom of this story)
It sounded like a good idea. Fine the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area for allowing particulate pollution caused by recreational vehicles. The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control Board would impose a rule with the fines based on a study of how much dust was raised by the off-roading.
But critics say that the study is flawed.
And emails show that the district has known about the problems with its study. Air quality district air specialist Joel Craig, who authored the bulk of the disputed study, wrote an email in which he said that air quality district board member and Pismo Beach city council member Ed Waage had uncovered mistakes in the study.
“Waage figured it out and as I say embarrassed us to our board,” Craig wrote.
The air quality district relies on fines and fees to cover the expense of its employee payroll. Of the 21 employees at the air quality district, 19 have salaries and benefits that exceed $100,000 a year. The air quality district has been criticized by those who say its focus is raising fees and fines.
For almost a decade, air quality district and county officials have worked to promote an agreement that would subject the recreation area to fines of $1,000 per day if dust blowing from the dunes is not reduced in the future.
The two local public entities claim they have been working in collaboration with state parks to discover if vehicle use on the dunes increases the level of dust downwind at the Nipomo Mesa. However, emails show they were working in tandem to keep state parks from reviewing or conducting research that could disprove the district’s study.
Early on, state parks’ staff and officials said they thought the Phase II study the air quality district created was flawed because of several errors in the district’s methodology. Even so, they agreed to work in cooperation while openly doing additional research.
In 2010, state parks, San Luis Obispo County and the air pollution board entered into a memorandum of understanding. The three parties agreed to share documents and any data or analysis with each other, according to the agreement.
However, emails between air pollution board director Larry Allen and San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chairman Bruce Gibson show they were working together to block the state from conducting a third study of PM10 (particulate matter measuring a diameter of 10 microns or less) pollution levels.
After reviewing the district’s Phase II study, the state discovered errors and wanted several changes made. Allen responded with an email to Gibson, who was also the chairman of the air pollution board, in which he contends the agreement does not allow state parks to do research or request that errors in the study get corrected.
“Their edits completely misconstrue the purpose of the memorandum of agreement and seem to be a not-too-subtle attempt to create a third PM10 study rather than develop appropriate mitigation strategies,” Allen said in an email to Gibson. “This type of tactic is their MO – delay, dodge and obfuscate and try to wear us down while they’re spending money and resources right now to collect meteorological data in an effort to challenge our study.”
The district then brought in a technician with ties to Gibson to give the credence of a Ph.D to the study. University of California Davis physics professor Thomas Cahill worked in conjunction with Craig to polish the study.
“By the way, my sister is a friend of Supervisor Gibson,” Cahill said in an email to Craig.
In 2008, Cahill began working to support Craig’s study before a contract to pay him more than a $100,000 was approved and signed.
But because he conducted much of his work before the air pollution district signed his contract, U.C. Davis would not allow Cahill to charge state parks for his efforts. In an email to Craig, Cahill said he planned to manipulate the dates so he could get the state to pay him for his work.
“You will see a number of changes in the text taking out that we did anything before the official start date October 1,” Cahill said in his Nov. 2008 email. “Actually, it was almost all travel and labor – we can hide the date of the labor and I will put the travel onto two weeks of summer money that otherwise I would not have taken. All comes out pretty well.”
Meanwhile, Waage began doing research that he said showed flawed methodology and conclusions in the district’s study.
Allen, along with several San Luis Obispo County supervisors including Adam Hill and Gibson, has repeatedly said that Waage’s claims are unfounded.
However, the authors of the study stated in emails that Waage had discovered some of the study’s flaws.
In 2009, Craig tells Cahill they need to be cautious because with a Ph.D. in chemistry, Waage, was checking the data, methodology and research conclusions.
“This is why we feel we need to be super duper careful double checking everything prior to releasing the report,” Craig wrote.
When Waage first attempted to download the about 300 pages of data gathered for the study, he discovered district staff had taken the excel spread sheet, converted it to a PDF, encrypted it, password protected the document and added “no copying allowed,” Waage said.
Even though Waage and state park officials repeatedly requested to have a workable copy of the data, the district refused to allow easy access to the work. Waage eventually acquired the data which he shared with state parks.
In addition, the emails uncover Gibson’s leadership role in working to keep the public from reviewing the data, research and study methodology.
For example, in late 2009, Gibson forced an already publicized meeting to be canceled and Cahill to change plans to travel to San Luis Obispo.
“Larry was meeting with Supervisor Gibson yesterday and when Gibson found out when the Public Workshops were scheduled he hit the roof,” the Nov. 2009 email from Craig to Cahill said. “He did not like the idea that the public would get a briefing and then the board would not get the study presented to them until two board meetings later. So he insisted that Larry re-schedule the workshops.”
Gibson and Allen have argued that the board’s intention is not to create another stream of revenue but rather to protect public health.
However, questions have been raised about whether data have been manipulated.
Over the summer, an outspoken advocate to protect recreation at the dunes, Kevin Rice, uncovered and went public with the discovery that daily air quality ratings were being manipulated to make pollution levels downwind from the dunes appear unhealthy.
Over a 10 month period beginning in 2010, Rice analyzed air quality forecasts. He found that nearly one-third of the time that the district had been informing the public that pollution levels were at unhealthy levels in the areas around the Oceano dunes, when the air quality was actually at healthy levels. At that rate, 100 days a year are miscoded to appear unhealthy.
At a July 27 district board meeting, Allen confirmed they have been adding five points to the daily air quality index forecast as he and Gibson had earlier agreed to do.
The alterations were a focused effort, Rice said.
“Because they were only manipulating forecasts in Nipomo, it appears this was done to sway residents on the Nipomo Mesa,” Rice said.
Allen did say, however, later in an interview with CalCoastNews, that the district offsets the numbers to conservatively protect public health.
The air quality district board is scheduled to vote on the rule Nov. 16.
If the rule is approved on Wednesday, it is likely state parks will mount a legal challenge. The state has said in letters to the district that the rule must first be legally and scientifically justified before the air quality district can impose fines on state parks.
Alleged flaws in the study
Numerous local and state officials allege that the district’s Phase II study includes numerous flaws because of poor methodology and the manipulation of data.
Air quality district board member and Pismo Beach Councilman Ed Waage contends the study is flawed and wants the inaccuracies corrected.
(1) The study concludes that vehicles on the dunes cause an increase in pollution levels downwind on the Nipomo Mesa.
However, the district’s data shows that on weekdays the larger particulate matter blowing from the dunes is higher than on weekends when there were more vehicles on the dunes.
The district rejected that methodology electing instead to compare the levels of dust blowing on the 50 days with the most vehicles on the dunes to the 50 days with the least, according to the district’s study.
On the lowest use days, having an average of 379 vehicles riding on the dunes, the weather was primarily cold and damp and included eight days of rain.
On the 50 busiest days, when the park saw an average of 3,738 vehicles on the dunes, the weather was primarily sunny and the ground dry making it easier for the wind to pick up dust, Waage said.
“People tend to go to the park when the weather is warmer,” Waage said. “The study ignores rain. The problem is in their methodology.”
(2) The air quality district study assumes that wind speeds measured at the California Department of Forestry fire station are representative of wind speeds at the dunes.
During the past year, state parks has been measuring wind speeds at the dunes and reports speeds 70 percent higher then those measured at the fire station. The fire station stands behind several rows of tall trees.
“Higher wind speeds will have a significant effect on some of the conclusions of the study so it is imperative that the more recent data on wind speeds be used to reevaluate those conclusions,” Waage said.
The district also conducted the PM10 pollution level study at the fire station which sets on Highway 1 in Oceano. Waage, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, criticizes the district for failing to consider the effect auto emissions had on the higher pollution counts it found at the fire station.
“A comparison of PM10 measurements during the morning commute at 7 a.m. shows higher levels of PM10 on weekdays than weekends,” Waage said. “Since there is more commute traffic on weekdays, this result is an indication that there is a contribution to measured PM10 from vehicle traffic.”
(3) The air quality district proposed a year-long study and then added in an additional month. March and April are windy months causing more dust to blow in the air.
Waage said the study’s additional March skewed the results.
“Using this flawed approach, the study found about 25 percent higher PM10 (particulate matter) on the 50 highest use days compared to the lowest 50 days,” Waage said. “This 25 percent value was used extensively in public presentations by district staff.”
Instead of a program of fees and fines, Waage said he would like to see the adoption of best management practices at the dunes and a program of cooperation between state parks and the air quality district.