UPDATED to correct a board member’s name in comments to a resident.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District may delay a May 3 vote that could ban all beach bonfires by January 2015, the group decided at a meeting today in Diamond Bar.
The SCAQMD board decided to postpone that vote for one month if the delay won’t create timing problems for the California Coastal Commission, which was waiting for the air board’s decision before deciding on whether to issue a permit to Newport Beach to remove the city’s 60 beach fire rings.
Calls seeking clarification to the Coastal Commission and a representative of Newport Beach who signed a 90-day extension were not immediately returned. The AQMD board will meet on May 3 and on June 7; the Coastal Commission has meetings scheduled for May 8 and June 12, with the June meeting date after the 90 day extension presumably would expire.
UPDATE: Karl Schwing, Orange County area supervisor for the Coastal Commission, said in a telephone interview this afternoon that a representative from Huntington Beach had contacted his office, and that the Coastal Commission could wait until its July meeting to decide on the Newport Beach fire ring application and meet all regulatory deadlines.
The discussion at today’s AQMD board meeting was contentious at times, with the AQMD chairman scolding a Huntington Beach resident from the dais after he objected to comparisons to fire rings and war-torn Vietnam.
AQMD board member Dennis Yates described a long-ago July 4 night in Newport Beach, where bottle rockets and other fireworks left smoke and residue lingering in the air and made a comparison to the Vietnam war. Chairman William Burke said he’d seen the Newport Beach fire rings from the air and said they made the beach looked as if it had been carpet bombed.
But when Huntington Beach resident and journalist Chris Epting objected to the Vietnam comparisons, Burke cut him off.
“I know what I saw, and that’s the way I see it,” Burke said. “Don’t question me, don’t question Yates’ opinion or my opinion,” he said. Yates added that Epting appeared “angry.”
“I’m frustrated,” Epting said. “You can dismiss me and can call me angry…I would encourage more people to do their homework here. This is draconian. The people are quite frankly fed up.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman spoke at Friday’s meeting, requesting that the issue of banning beach bonfires be sent back to the agency’s Stationary Source Committee, possibly for a meeting to be held in Huntington Beach. She said that she and Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry had been communicating and wanted to continue to work out plans that would let the cities decide for themselves how to manage beach fires.
“We are very concerned that the fast track this rule amendment has been on has not had enough public input,” she said. The meetings where the public could speak about fire rings have been held in Palm Desert and Diamond Bar, and she said she hoped for a meeting in Huntington Beach so more residents could attend.
Burke said the item would not go back to the Stationary Source Committee.
Other board members said they were concerned about air quality from trash, including tires and sofas that they say have been burned in the rings. The AQMD began studying air quality from beach fire rings three weeks ago. Data from the studies would be made public before the group votes, an AQMD spokesman has said.
“To think somebody’s burning a tire — that’s not “Kumbaya” time,” Yates said. “That’s crazy.”
Burke said AQMD inspectors had seen evidence of trash burning in fire pits.
Corona del Mar resident Frank Peters, a vocal opponent of beach fire rings, testified and urged a vote for the ban.
“This all started in my neighborhood,” he said. “May I take credit for that? Your decision could enhance the quality of my life…Without you, we’re lost.”
Peters added that allowing cities to decide for themselves whether to ban beach fires would not work.
“Air pollution knows no boundaries,” he said.
Newport Beach resident Charles Farrell also spoke against fire rings.
“Our beaches stink like a dirty word that begins with ‘S,’” he said. “We don’t need more studies. Let’s take the stench out of our beaches.”
Huntington Beach city and business leaders have said that banning beach fire rings could cost that city more than $1 million a year.
“I hear what you’re saying, but I have environmental justice to consider,” Burke said.
Yates added, “I don’t have to be a scientist when I’m driving in Newport beach and they fire those things up. It’s pretty obvious. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. It’s like…horrible.”
Board member Josie Gonzales asked why cities with fire rings didn’t use code enforcement officers, fire officials or other means to enforce illegal burning and questioned if the AQMD was “meddling” in city business.
Burke responded, saying that the AQMD’s mission was to protect air quality.
“This thing’s been like fly paper,” Burke said of the fire rings issue. “I wish I’d never touched it, but I did touch it.”
He encouraged representatives from “stakeholders”‘ — cities with beach bonfires — to work together and with AQMD staff as quickly as possible to come up with ideas on how they want to proceed.
The beach bonfire ban is part of proposed changes to Rules 444 and 445 and would ban all beach fires by January 2015 while letting cities opt in sooner if they choose; read our earlier story here.