Sharing a story from his youth, Gary Chow talked about growing up urging his father to drive behind buses because he enjoyed the smell of diesel fumes pouring out.
The president of the board for San Antonio Community College in Walnut found himself reminiscing last week as the campus was making history for its environmental efforts in combating pollution and improving the educational experience for students and staff.
“My family couldn’t understand why it was something I really liked,” remembered Chow, among a group of speakers, including South Pasadena City Councilmember and longtime clean air advocate Michael Cacciotti, saluting the actions made by Mt. SAC in going green and becoming the first AGZA certified Green Zone community college in the nation, transitioning from gas to battery-operated equipment for outdoor lawn and garden maintenance.
“For some reason, I just loved it,” continued Chow about his fume fix back in the day, the comment drawing laughs at the start of an hour-long ceremony outside Heritage Hall adjacent the football stadium. There’s nothing like burnt gasoline.”
Those days are long gone for Chow who like others is amused by his own behavior when he was young, changing his ways dramatically today as a big proponent of the college adopting sustainable healthier practices by going green.
“On behalf of the board of trustees,” said Chow, “let me say that we are proud of the grounds team for their initiative and all their hard work in accomplishing this achievement. Congratulations to everyone involved.”
AGZA, short for the American Green Zone Alliance, was founded by Dan Mabe, focusing on the switch to zero-emission grounds equipment while aiming to reduce the negative health impacts associated with traditional gas-powered landscaping devices.
“By replacing their gas tools, Mt. SAC will reduce 32 tones of emissions,” Mabe said to the gathering, congratulating the institution for becoming the first community college in the nation to become AGZA Green Zone certified. “These totals will compound year after year and continue to be substantiated by your AGZA Green Zone certification status.”
A sign posted at the event highlighted Mt. SAC’s achievement, reading: “We are using zero-emission, low noise electric equipment and people powered tools for all grounds operations.”
Cacciotti, not only is a South Pasadena city official but also serves as the vice chair for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a government agency responsible for developing and enforcing air pollution control rules and regulations in much of Southern California, including the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside.
“Mt. SAC’s efforts are important because using electric equipment will improve the health of workers as they will no longer breathe in harmful toxic air,” said Cacciotti. “It also provides an incentive for other community college districts in the area, the state and nation to follow by example. Other institutions of higher learning will model what Mt. SAC is doing today.”
Reaching its stature as the first community college in the U.S. to go all-electric for outdoor lawn care maintenance has not been easy, pointed out Cacciotti. “It has been a long journey, as Mt. SAC has discovered,” he pointed out. “It takes leadership, commitment, dedication and courage. They’ve had to fight an old school fossil fuel multi-billion dollar lawn care industry that doesn’t want to change.”
In his role on the South Pasadena City Council, Cacciotti was at the forefront of Garfield Park becoming the first park in the United States to earn AGZA Green Zone certification by using zero-emission, non-polluting gas-free equipment for lawn and garden maintenance. It wasn’t long after that the entire city was recognized by the organization as the first municipality in the country where all parks and city-owned properties were maintained using battery-operated equipment.
“Now cities locally and around the nation are following our model,” explained Cacciotti. “Pasadena, Glendale, to cities in the Northwest, all the way across to Florida are on board. Many other cities are looking into doing this. It’s spreading across the country. That multi-million dollar gas-powered lawn care industry is now in trouble.”
Further, Cacciotti and those on the council reached another milestone in recent years banning the use of gas-powered leaf-blowers for independent gardeners working in the city, along with residents.
“It’s all designed to clean up the air, making our city free of dirty pollutants,” said the councilmember. “These harmful particulates pass our blood brain barrier and go to our circulatory system, into our lungs, into our heart, and other organs. We know they cause premature deaths, affect kids with asthma, autism and are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
The clean air mission doesn’t stop there. The South Pasadena Police Department is working to transition to patrolling neighborhoods in all-electric vehicles, moving away from gas-guzzling models. And, in an effort to get residents and visitors to use two-wheelers, much of the downtown business district, along with streets surrounding school campuses, welcome cyclists with an influx of new bicycle lanes.
During his comments at the last week’s Mt. SAC ceremony, Mabe explained to audience members that Cacciotti takes “on the toughest air quality challenges through tireless efforts and actions engaging cities, counties, academic institutions” while lending his vast environmental experience and knowledge locally, nationally and globally.
“[South Coast AQMD] Vice Chair Cacciotti and the district have been so instrumental in helping usher in the zero-emission era for the landscape maintenance industry which started in Southern California,” he said.
For more than a decade, noted Mabe, AQMD has also helped integrate battery electric technology for the landscape maintenance industry by funding programs in which professional gardeners and residents throughout Southland cities can exchange gas-powered lawn mowers for electric models at a significantly reduced cost.
Among the speakers at the ceremony was South Pasadena’s Charles Trevino, who represented the San Gabriel Valley as a director on the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. The Upper District, explained Trevino, is a regional water wholesaler for 18 cities, including Walnut, and 26 retailers in the San Gabriel Valley. “Our primary responsibility is to provide imported water to the region and sustainable solutions for our residents and businesses to use water efficiently,” he said during his remarks. “The American Green Zone Alliance also pursues this responsibility through their commitment to improving the quality of life for communities, working conditions for operators, and beneficial best practices for the landscape industry. Their Green Zone certification is a reflection of their belief in a sustainable environment for all communities.”
Mt. SAC is updating its landscaping efforts to become water efficient, incorporating drought tolerant plants and including recycled water for irrigation. “You are leading the way in water efficiency and sustainability,” he insisted.
Trevino also praised the college for implementing a lasting and sustainable solution, adding: “Achieving a Green Zone certification is a major step in the right direction. This certification shows how dedicated this institution is to making water smart choices and embracing conservation as a way of life.”
While Mt. SAC becomes the first community college in the nation to receive AGZA Green Zone certification, Erik Diaz let those on hand know that USC was the initial university in the country to receive the prestigious honor. Diaz serves as University of Southern California’s landscape supervisor and campus arborist.
Now that major change pushing electric over gas-power has been instituted, Chow, the Mt. SAC’s board president, likes to joke with the college’s grounds crew that they no longer will smell the diesel fumes he grew up to enjoy, saying: “They will have to go healthy now.”
A long way from his youth, now with a strong desire to set a healthier path for students, staff and the community, Chow no longer has a desire to ride behind buses and take in the escaping unhealthy, toxic aroma.
“The fumes are a thing of the past,” he said beaming. “I outgrew it.”