Gibson’s attack on geologist creates dust up
July 14, 2015
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson has used his sway to possibly jeopardize the job of a state geologist who is critical of the Oceano Dunes dust rule, a move that has drawn rebuke from three of the five sitting supervisors.
Three days after Supervisor Adam Hill threatened the employment of California Geological Survey employee Will Harris, Gibson followed up the threat in a letter to California’s chief geologist. Gibson’s letter accused Harris of having a conflict of interest and stated the geologist’s scientific objection to the dust rule is “diversionary and irrelevant.”
The letter prompted a response from the chief geologist stating action would be taken against Harris. However, Gibson’s letter has also drawn responses from supervisors Debbie Arnold, Frank Mecham and Lynn Compton who disagree with it and say they welcome Harris’s input on the dust rule.
Compton told CalCoastNews that Gibson’s letter threatened Harris’s livelihood and constituted an abuse of power.
“It is an abuse of power for any sitting supervisor to threaten anyone’s job, let alone a trained geologist just because their opinions differ from Mr. Gibson’s,” Compton said.
The dust rule requires the California Department of Parks and Recreation to reduce the amount of particulate matter blowing from the Oceano Dunes off-road vehicle area to natural levels or face fines of $1,000 per day. The regulation is based on a contested study that concluded off-road activity on the dunes has caused an increase in pollution on the Nipomo Mesa.
At last months air district meeting, Harris said that the dust rule is pointless because natural background levels are higher than current dust levels.
As proof, Harris has since distributed aerial images comparing the dunes in the 1930s to the dunes in 2014. The 1930s image displays more sand than the 2014 picture, and the recent image shows that much of what used to be open sand is now covered with vegetation.
“In the 1930s, there were 650 more acres of open sand subjected to dust-producing dune saltation,” Harris stated in a June 30 memo to Chris Conlin, the deputy director of state parks. “By this measure, state parks has already reduced saltation-derived dust below ‘natural background levels.’”
In April, the 2nd Appellate Court in Ventura ruled the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District does not have the authority to regulate air emissions at state parks through the current dust rule.
Since the appellate court ruling, Harris, as well as some air district board members, have argued the district should stop defending the dust rule in court. Instead, they call for adopting a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with state parks and working together to reduce dust levels.
Adopting an MOU would eliminate the APCD’s ability to levy fines on state parks. Some critics of the APCD say the intention of regulating activity at the dunes is not to protect residents from dust, but rather to increase revenue for the district.
Just before the air district’s June 17 meeting ended, Hill warned Harris that his public comment could affect his job with the Geological Survey.
“Perhaps someone will talk to your bosses in Sacramento about your appearance here today,” Hill said.
On June 20, Gibson authored a letter to John Parrish, the state geologist and head of the Geological Survey. Gibson’s letter, which was written on official board of supervisors paper, stated Harris owed an apology to the APCD and air district chief Larry Allen “for his grossly inappropriate commentary.”
Gibson stated in his letter that Harris disparaged the integrity of APCD technical efforts, as well as the competence of Allen. He also wrote that Harris displayed a conflict in his personal and professional roles, and that Parris should reconsider allowing the geologist to work as an advisor to state parks (DPR).
“I would also urge you to review Mr. Harris’s role in advising DPR to ensure that the public’s interest and health are protected,” Gibson wrote.
Parrish responded to Gibson in a June 30 letter apologizing for Harris’s remarks. Parrish said Harris appeared to have breached professional conduct, and his comments were not approved by the Geological Survey.
“I believe that Mr. Harris has likely irreparably tarnished his abilities to conduct constructive discussions with scientific objectivity on this project, and CGS will be taking appropriate actions,” Parrish wrote.
Compton questions whether Gibson’s letter could cost Harris his job.
“The letter from Mr. John Parrish, in response to supervisor Gibson’s original letter, indicates that the Department of Conservation, California Geological Survey will be taking actions based on Mr. Gibson’s letter chastising Mr. Harris for his public comments,” Compton said. “What does that entail? Could Mr. Harris be fired? All for speaking up at a public meeting and giving his scientific opinion?”
Last week the SLO County Board of Supervisor adopted a resolution on civil discourse that calls for respecting people who express differing opinions at public meetings. Gibson was the honorary chair of the group from the League of Women Voters that was advocating for the resolution.
On Monday, Mecham wrote his own letter to Parrish, stating he hoped the incident would not have a negative effect on Harris’s position or career.
“He was respectful, articulate and seemed quite knowledgeable,” Mecham said of Harris in the letter to the geologist’s boss.
Neither Gibson, nor Hill responded to requests for comment.
The APCD board is currently undecided on how to proceed with the dust rule. It finished last month’s meeting by agreeing to continue discussions on whether to amend the rule and keep it in place or to abandon it and pursue an alternative route of reducing dust levels.
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