SANTA ANA (AP) — Preliminary testing released Wednesday by regional air quality officials found that smoke from the beach bonfires that dot the Southern California coastline pollutes the air in nearby neighborhoods and on the beaches themselves.
The data will be a critical part of the ongoing debate over a proposal before the South Coast Air Quality Management District to ban nearly 850 beach bonfires along miles of coastline in Los Angeles and Orange counties due to health concerns about wood smoke.
The proposition has pitted two famous surf havens, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, against each other in an escalating war of words.
Newport Beach wants to ban wood fires on its beaches, but its request led air quality regulators to propose a sweeping, region-wide ban that has infuriated Huntington Beach. The city in northern Orange County said it will lose nearly $1 million in parking revenue alone if it’s forced to extinguish its 400 fire pits on 10 miles of beach.
The city and its supporters have held fireside rallies on the sand, launched online petitions and Facebook pages and drummed up a campaign called “Keep Your Mitts Off Our Pits.”
The air quality agency had been set to vote on the ban on June 7, but that will be pushed back for further testing that will continue through the summer — a peak time for bonfires, said Sam Atwood, the agency’s spokesman.
Early results from air testing done since late March show the microscopic pollutants from wood smoke were up to 10 times higher than normal background levels in parking lots near the fire pits and up to three times higher in neighborhoods near them.
The levels of pollution varied greatly depending on the weather and wind conditions and locations and testing will continue, the agency said in a statement accompanying the release.
They did not exceed the federal limit for 24-hour exposure, but did exceed in some instances the guidelines for short-term exposure, especially for the very young, elderly and those with chronic health conditions.
Of greatest concern are microscopic soot particles that can lodge in the lungs and, in some cases, pass through cell linings to the bloodstream and reach other organs, said Atwood, the air district spokesman.
Barbara Peters, who lives just yards from 27 fire pits on Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach, said she has mixed feelings about the results.
Peters has been one of the most outspoken proponents of removing the fire pits. She and other neighbors said the smoke leaks into their homes, coats cars and patio furniture with ash and causes respiratory troubles.
“There’s a part of me that says I’m glad the data confirms what our physical experience has been and then there’s the other part of me that says, ‘Oh my Gosh, I’m living with this unhealthy air quality on a day-to-day basis,” said Peters.
Laurie Frymire, a spokeswoman for the city of Huntington Beach, said the city hadn’t reviewed the data yet and couldn’t immediately comment. She said, however, that the city was considering hiring separate experts.
Air quality regulators used both fixed and mobile air testing stations at locations in Corona del Mar and Balboa Island — both in Newport Beach — and in Huntington Beach and on Dockweiler State Beach in the South Bay.
A power point presentation posted on the agency’s website with the results included an estimate that one bonfire burning all evening emits as much pollution as a diesel truck driving 564 miles.
It had previously estimated the region’s hundreds of fire pits generate up to a quarter-ton of particle pollution each summer day.
Mayors of various cities held a closed-door meeting on the issue Wednesday and a public forum is set for Friday.
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)