We gulp air as we pedal our bikes and increasingly I’m concerned about what I’m breathing.
For 15 years my family has lived at the beach in Corona del Mar. When we first arrived I spent more time fretting about the parking lot than the fire rings. But time has changed that. The parking lot has turned out to be a fun place, like for this weekend’s bike riding safety drills with the Boy Scouts.
Not so the fire rings.
At first it’s the stench that repels; it took a decade before we learned of the adverse health effects. The gradual realization that I’m living next to a toxic incinerator caused me to run through the “Pretend it doesn’t exist,” and “It won’t affect my kids,” rationalizations. Now I wonder in what form the long-term exposure will manifest.
I respect the fun that late-night fire rings enthusiasts enjoy, but for me and my neighbors the health threat associated with inhaling smoke 300+ nights a year became too big to ignore.
So first it was an appeal to City Councilwoman, Nancy Gardner. Twenty-seven of the city’s 60 fire rings are in her district. She’d raised this issue before and knew it would be contentious. I owe her a big debt of gratitude for her willingness to try again. The City Council would eventually vote unanimously in favor of removing the rings.
Next, we needed permission from the California Coastal Commission.
My wife took charge and a new advocate was born. She connected with neighbors who joined the fight. She reached out to experts in the field. Newport Beach’s application to the CCC includes letters of support from the California Dept of Public Health, The Lung Association, and researchers from Stanford and Harvard Universities.
Then it all came down to yesterday’s meeting with the Coastal Commission.
We knew we were underdogs in this fight; Commission staff had already come out with a negative opinion of our application. But we never gave up. My wife coordinated with city staff to prepare the right message; together they recognized that of all the different tacks to take, the public health argument would be unassailable. They were right.
I was choked up, biting my lip, trying not to cry yesterday as one-by-one our City Manager and his department heads stepped to the microphone to make the case. The day would become an emotional roller coaster as advocate then foe spoke for and against.
In the end it wasn’t the petty or bizarre comments that won hearts and minds. This isn’t about rich people at the beach who “knew the rings were there when they bought their houses.” Paranoid conspiracy arguments like Commissioner Esther Sanchez expressed, “This is really a way of controlling the public,” held no sway once Commissioner Burke spoke.
You could hear a pin drop as he chastised staff for their critiques of the City’s application:
I was really disheartened to hear people testify there were no scientific studies — that it was anecdotal information because, I can’t speak for the other Districts, but there are others here who can. We spent millions and millions and millions of dollars in research to find out what the cause and effect of this stuff is.
There were no rebuttals once he finished speaking. The Commission couldn’t move fast enough to punt this issue to the AQMD Board which Burke Chairs.
The low cost amenity loved by so many, as the staff report called out, was recognized for what it really is:
Don’t come to me and tell me I’ve got to have fire rings because I need a good time. You’ve got a brother or a cousin, or a mother, or an aunt who is going to be affected by this.
The fight’s not over yet, only the battleground has changed, but now we’re petitioning the South Coast Air Quality Management District – where clean air and public health intersect.
What are the odds? Time will tell. Dr. Burke couldn’t refrain from predicting:
Anybody who thinks that’s not going to pass is not in touch with reality.
Today my wife and I savor this procedural victory. Like similar advocacy issues relating to bike safety, it can be a long road to get what you want. In both cases, bike safety and clean air, Newport Beach is demonstrating great leadership.