Beach Smoke Study Generates Controversy

Byline: Ambrosia Brody

Beach Smoke Study Generates Controversy

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Opponents of a proposed a one-year prohibition on wood burning at beaches in Los Angeles County and Orange County had an opportunity to tell a South Air Coast Quality Management District (AQMD) board member why the fire rings should remain on local beaches during a special meeting, May 17.

The meeting followed the release of data collected from the district’s two-month air quality sampling near fire pits at several of the region’s beaches. District employees deployed monitoring technologies and sampling strategies that included mobile sensors and stationary monitors to assess the particulate matter produced by beach bonfires. The samples were collected downwind of the rings during a single evening.

The district’s primary conclusion is that beach fires produce fine particulate matter — which it refers to as PM 2.5 — at the beach, and that the impact extends into neighboring communities. It states that concentrations of PM 2.5 can be up to 10 times the normal background levels of airborne particulate matter at beach parking lots and up to three times the background levels in nearby residential locations.

The AQMD shared the findings with local mayors and the public on May 15.

For Newport Beach — the city that initially sought approval from the California Coastal Commission to remove all 60 of its beach fire rings (including 33 near the Balboa Pier and 27 on Big Corona State Beach) — the AQMD’s samples seem to support the city’s stance that smoke from nearby bonfires is harmful to residents. According to the city, the sampling showed that at Corona del Mar State Beach, where it said westerly winds tend to blow smoke from the fire rings into nearby homes, the one-hour average particulate matter concentrations can exceed “public health guidance” levels.

“The data demonstrates a problem with high levels of particulate matter around the fire rings,” Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry wrote in a prepared statement.

“We in Newport Beach have always said that a local solution is better than a regional one,” he stated. “The geography of Big Corona is far different from Huntington Beach. As we might have expected, the sampling and analysis shows that health impacts here in Corona del Mar are different than in Huntington Beach and other areas.”

However, the results have not convinced other cities’ elected representatives, including Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, that a sweeping beach bonfire ban is needed to protect residents from smoke.

“I am opposed to any ban, because the data I have seen does not show me that there are health risks to our residents caused by the beach fires,” Mayor Boardman explained. “Each fire ring generates as much particulate matter as charbroiling four cheeseburgers, according to the AQMD’s own data.”

The presentation “Air Quality Impacts of Recreational Beach Fires: Preliminary Assessment,” claimed that one beach fire pit was estimated to emit as much fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) as one diesel truck driving 564 miles.

The sites that were monitored include Dockweiler State Beach, Cabrillo Beach Park, Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington State Beach, Huntington City Beach, the Balboa Pier, Corona del Mar Beach, Aliso Beach Park, North Beach, Doheny State Beach, Capistrano Beach Park, the San Clemente Pier and T Street Beach.

Some city officials questioned the placement of the air sensors and the methodology used in the AQMD sampling.

In May, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido hosted an Orange County mayors’ roundtable to discuss the potential beach bonfire ban — and to offer possible solutions to convince the South Coast Air Quality Management District not to enforce a yearlong ban throughout the region.

For Huntington Beach, the AQMD data shows that 98 percent of the particulate matter dissipates within 700 feet of a fire ring and that levels of particulate matter are at background levels in the residential community from Hamilton Street north when the fires are burning.

“Background levels were measured when no fires were burning, or in areas where there are no fire rings,” Mayor Boardman said. “We do not have the same situation as Newport, which has houses on the beach right by the fire rings.”

Vehicle traffic could have also caused airborne particulate matter data to be skewed, many contend.

Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air quality management district, said car traffic could have a minor influence on the readings — but the district’s past monitoring of heavy traffic areas, such as the 710 freeway, indicates the impact would be minimal.

“If they (monitoring sensors) were picking up strong traffic signatures, then we would expect to see two peaks — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — and we didn’t get that,” he said. “We got one peak period that correlated very closely with the predominant time of use of the fire pits.”

The air quality management district intends to continue with the study.

“These are preliminary results from the monitoring study that has only been ongoing for a couple of months,” Atwood said, “but we are definitely seeing signs that there is an impact in the adjacent area — in parking lots and, in some cases, residential areas.”

Newport Beach city officials hope the new data will convince the Coastal Commission to make a decision on a local fire pit ban. Coastal Commissioners held off on voting on whether to approve the removal of Newport Beach’s fire pits, instead deferring the item to the South Coast Air Quality Management District — allowing it to decide whether to prohibit beach bonfires.

“The Coastal Commission asked for localized air quality and health impact data for Corona del Mar State Beach and the Balboa Pier area, and the data is now available,” Newport Beach’s Mayor Curry wrote. “It’s been done in an unbiased way by recognized experts in air quality sampling.

“We simply want the Coastal Commission’s permission to allow us to do what’s best for the people most impacted by wood smoke from fire rings: our beachgoers, our city staff that works at the beach and our residents,” Mayor Curry added.

Huntington Beach representatives are currently working with air quality management district staff members to come up with a plan that may prevent a regionwide ban on fire rings.

“We will continue working with local residents to show the AQMD why banning wood-burning fire pits at Southern California beaches is a bad idea, and we hope that they will permanently table the idea,” said Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa.)

The South Coast Air Quality Management District scheduled a hearing on the matter for a June 21 meeting at the AQMD headquarters, located at 21865 Copley Drive in Diamond Bar.

Newport Beach’s request to remove its fire rings has been placed on the California Coastal Commission’s July meeting agenda.

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