By Cecilia chan

Tribune Staff Writer

A program aimed at helping clean the air in Maricopa County is off to a good start in the East Valley a month after its launch.

The Mowing Down Pollution Program gives residents who turn in a gas-powered lawn mower a $150 voucher to buy an electric one in an effort to reduce ozone pollution – an odorless and colorless gas that can inflame and damage airways, aggravate asthma and hamper the immune system’s ability to fight off respiratory infections. Children and the elderly are the most susceptible to ozone exposure.

“It’s going well,” said Bob Huhn, spokesman for the Maricopa County Air Quality Department. “Our goal is to distribute 2,500 vouchers. If that happens we will reduce air pollution by 21 tons per year. That is what we are looking for right now.”

But don’t expect to see municipalities such as Gilbert and Mesa turn from gas-powered garden equipment anytime soon.

Gilbert Interim Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona said his department currently uses larger diesel mowers for the town’s fields.

“The open-space turf is contracted out and they currently use gas-powered mowers,” he said. “Due to the size of the areas the department maintains, the electric push-mowers are not able to handle the workload and they would not be efficient for the scope of our parks.”

That said, Carmona added, the technology is catching up with a few smaller, riding-electric mowers now available, but they are not at the level to be able to handle larger commercial properties.

“The department always tries to be environmentally conscious in approaching items such as this,” he said. “And we always continue to revisit the topic as technology evolves.”

Mesa Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Marc Heirshberg said most mowing in the city’s parks is handled via landscape maintenance contracts.

The city’s contracts don’t dictate what equipment the contractors use to mow the parks and the limited inventory of mowers used by city staff are gas-powered, he said.

“But we do require that contractors and city staff follow appropriate maintenance practices, such as no use of blowers on pollution-advisory days,” Heirshberg said, adding he was not aware of any state, county or city government programs to convert mowing operations on a commercial scale from gas to electric.

Program partner Arizona Department of Environmental Quality allocated $375,000 for the vouchers, which can be redeemed at eight authorized Home Depot locations, including 1740 S. Country Club Drive in Mesa and 2530 E. Germann Road in Chandler.

So far, 908 people have signed up for the program and 483 vouchers have been sent, Huhn said.

Gas-powered mowers belch out roughly 6 percent of the air pollution in the county, he said. Tailpipe emissions from automobile traffic are the main contributors to ozone pollution.

The American Lung Association’s annual report card on air quality earlier this year handed Maricopa County an “F” grade for ozone pollution. But the “State of the Air 2018” report did point out the Valley improved from the year before with fewer high-ozone days.

In Arizona, ground-level ozone is concentrated in Maricopa County, where most urban centers are located, according to the state environmental department. It’s a particular problem during the summer, when emissions such as those from vehicles, react with the heat and sunlight, forming the bad ozone.

State environmental officials in 2017 issued for Maricopa County, 46 high-pollution advisories – when air pollution levels are expected to exceed the federal health standard – and 25 health-watch alerts – when air pollution levels are expected to approach the federal health standard, according to Huhn.

Since January, the state has issued 22 high-pollution advisories and 10 health-watch alerts, he said.

Huhn noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 strengthened the standards for ground-level ozone, which bumped up the number of days the county exceeded federal health standards.

Huhn said plans are to later expand the program to landscapers and to include other gardening tools such as gas-powered leaf blowers.

The new program is the county’s third air-pollution-reduction program.

In 2016, it instituted the Fireplace Retrofit Program, which gives homeowners a $2,000 voucher to convert their wood-burning fireplaces to gas burning and if their homes were not plumbed for natural gas, they would receive a device that reduces 75 percent of emission in chimneys, Huhn said.

That program has served 384 people so far, mostly in the Phoenix and Glendale areas, where air monitors show the highest levels of pollution.

And, in 2017, the county launched the Propane Fire Pit Program, which gives residents a $75 voucher to replace their wood-burning fire pits with propane fire pits. To date, 991 people have signed up for that program, according to Huhn.