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Mowing down dirty air 

The biggest air-pollution fine ever imposed in SLO County not only penalizes a polluter, it’s also being used to clean up our air.
Conoco Phillips Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa was forced to fork out a $900,000 penalty, after severely exceeding air emission limits at the refinery and its associated carbon plant last year.
The plant was belching out large amounts of particulate matter, now recognized as a major threat to public health in the surrounding area. “A lot of new health studies show severe health impacts from particulates,� explains Aeron Arlin Genet, planning manager at the SLO County Air Pollution Control District.
Miniscule particles in the emissions are easily breathed in by humans. These tiny toxins become lodged deep inside the lungs, and the body has no mechanism to kick them out, she says.
In recognition of the public health threat from particulates in our air, recent state legislation requires the implementation of local measures to cut down these pollutants.
Air quality officials have decided to use $600,000 of the refinery’s penalty for a grant program aimed at voluntary reduction of emissions in the South County area. “We’ve found that a grant program is a great way to clean up the air. It’s a voluntary approach, rather than regulatory, and it has remarkable emission benefits for mobile sources,� Arlin Genet notes.
The Air Pollution Control District is implementing a new plan for the South County, called the Mow Down Air Pollution Lawnmower Exchange Program. Traditional gas-powered lawn mowers are big contributors to dirty air. Using one of these mowers generates the same amount of smog in one hour as 40 cars, according to studies. Under the district’s innovative lawnmower exchange program, if you live in the South County, you can bring in your old gas-powered machine and go home with a shiny new pollution-free electric mower. A 24-volt cordless rechargeable Neuton mower, which retails at $399, will cost you just $160. Kiss your old gas-powered smog-generating mower goodbye, and watch it go off to be recycled.
Air quality officials figure that the lawnmower exchange program will have a positive impact in the same neighborhoods that have been affected by the refinery’s particulate emissions. “If we can replace 400 old gas-powered mowers with electric models, we can eliminate four tons of smog-forming emissions each year. That’s 40 tons over the lifetime of the electric mowers,� Arlin Genet says.
To participate in the Mow Down Air Pollution Lawnmower Exchange Program, you must pre-register with the Air Pollution Control District, showing that you live in Arroyo Grande, Avila Beach, Grover Beach, Nipomo, Oceano, Pismo Beach or Shell Beach. Bring in your working old mower, plus $160 for your new one, on May 6 or 13. Registration forms, and a map of the eligible areas, are available on the Air Pollution Control District website at, or by calling 781-5912.
Funds from the refinery penalty are also set to be used for cleaning up heavy-duty diesel vehicles that regularly operate in the South County, such as waste haulers and school buses, as well as implementing alternatives to pollution-causing backyard burning. ∆
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