Beach parking lots were filled to capacity despite critics concerns over new fire pit regulations
It’s the dawn of a new year. Looking back over 2014, I can only shake my head in amazement – we’ve seen the politics of public health up close and personal – the good, the bad, the ugly – often deceitful and even a little bit evil.
Then just when I thought we’d get to breathe clean air — it’s an election year.
2014 began with the worst smoke from beach fire rings we’ve seen in 16 years. January was hot and the winter rains never came. Worse, the wood burners came out in droves, as if to have the last hurrah before the City’s new ordinance for charcoal-only burning in the fire rings took effect in March. It wasn’t just us, a lot of Californians suffered from bad air quality.
Charcoal-only burning seemed reasonable as it burns up to 90% cleaner than wood – it satisfied the AQMD’s regulation and it meant every fire ring could stay. Was it too good to be true?
The City handed out free charcoal
The political process kicked off with a January trip to Sacramento to speak at the Assembly Natural Resources Committee; we were in opposition to Assemblyman Travis Allen’s AB-1102. Allen sought to enshrine beach bonfires through legislation, placing a recreational tradition over public health. It was an opportunity to share some of the health consequences from wood smoke exposure in our neighborhood. Air Quality experts were eloquent yet the bill made it out of Committee and passed unanimously through the State Assembly. On to the Senate.
The disappointment in Sacramento was offset January 31st with a favorable court ruling. Superior Court Judge Robert J. Moss denied Friends of the Fire Rings injunction petition by ruling,
The AQMD has presented enough evidence to show that wood burning can be harmful to health and that it had a rational basis to pass the Beach Burn Ban Amendments. When the threat to the health of the public is balanced against some slight inconvenience of not being able to burn wood at certain locations or at certain times… the balance tips in favor of the AQMD.
While we dreamed of smoke-free air, the City of Newport Beach was taking a friendly, educational approach – handing out bags of charcoal and pamphlets designed to educate burners about the cancer-causing chemicals in wood smoke.
Barbara with the Park Patrol’s Mike Ferris
It’s hard to hold your breath when someone’s recreational burning is spewing toxic chemicals into your home, but we patiently observed the impact of public education provided by our very effective Park Patrol.
As outreach gained ground, summer crowds arrived and charcoal fire pits attracted more people than ever. Naysayers be damned – charcoal only was a huge success – people came in record numbers for fun and barbeques and the air was safe to breathe.
Meanwhile, things were heating up in Sacramento. Friends of the Fire Rings had pockets jingling with $60,000 in donations from Fieldstead and Company – the funding entity owned by Howard Ahmanson, Jr., our local fire rings king-pin. He’s a man apparently with other causes, some even less benevolent than promoting toxic wood smoke.
Ignoring the evidence that wood smoke harms all humans, pro-wood burners brought in the NAACP and LULAC to complain that cleaner fuels would keep black people and Hispanics away from the public beach. I guess they missed the California Department of Public Health 2013 report on Asthma in California, that notes: “Blacks have 40% higher asthma prevalence”, and “asthma hospitalization and ED visit rates are higher in Hispanics than Whites, especially among children.” They knew that class-warfare plays well at the polls — we were called racists in Senate hearings. They played to the California Coastal Commission’s public access concerns.
On a brighter note, honorable groups joined forces to oppose AB-1102. The American Lung Association in California, the Coalition for Clean Air, the Sierra Club, and Breathe California wrote to legislators and appeared at hearings to urge a decision in favor of air quality and public health. Noteworthy doctors and scientists from major universities and environmental groups wrote letters pointing out the harm of wood smoke exposure, especially for vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.
It hurt when the California Coastal Commission sided with wood burners in opposition to cleaner burning charcoal. After the Chair of the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee called Coastal petty, AB1102 was gutted, but not killed. The bill analysis made many compelling points – prompting me to write this letter to the editor of our local paper.
The Coastal Commission doesn’t care about the adverse health effects; for them it’s all about access
The bill moved on to the Natural Resources Committee where Coastal’s concerns that somehow cleaner air would diminish public access were considered. We went door to door visiting Senate staff showing photos of how many people live within the 700-foot buffer zone of the regulation. At this point, even Travis Allen and Coastal’s Legislative Liaison were acknowledging that wood smoke exposure is harmful to people’s health. That just wasn’t a good enough reason to stop fighting for control. Seemingly unstoppable; the bill moved on to Appropriations.
Things looked bleak until, in the final moments before the Appropriations Committee hearing, AB-1102 was sent to the Suspense graveyard. We took a deep breath. Could we dare hope for clean air?
As summer wound down, the local election season went into high gear. With four open Newport Beach City Council seats, candidates had lined up on a team platform. There was anger over the new city hall and fees for boat docks. Howard Ahmanson’s Fieldstead and Company kicked in $25,000 to Team Newport’s campaign, and no surprise wood burning fire rings are on the slate.
Newport’s former Mayor Keith Curry was in a heated contest for Assembly District 74. Guess what became a campaign issue? Any wonder who donated large sums to the candidate who vowed to save the fire rings?
Team Newport swept into office and as new council members took their seat, 2014 came to a close with an agenda item for January – bringing back wood burning to the beach.
As the year winds to a close we make the local Los Angeles Times neighborhood paper’s The 2014 DP 103 Newsworthy and Notable; we place at number 63. The recognition lends credibility and helps raise local awareness of how harmful wood smoke is to human health.
Surprisingly, the charcoal-only regulations lured huge crowds to the fire rings