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EPA closer to banning leaded airplane gas

San Jose study bears on Montgomery and Brown Fields future

There are twelve elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools exposed to the flightpath of Montgomery Field. - Image by Andrew Miller
There are twelve elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools exposed to the flightpath of Montgomery Field.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week the beginning of what may be the end of leaded airplane fuel - the only kind sold at Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa and Brown Field in Otay Mesa.

Among the petitioners who requested the inquiry is San Diego-based Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, which has been prodding the city to offer unleaded fuel alongside its leaded aviation gas, known as avgas.

The unleaded alternative, known as UL94, has been available for years, and is sold in the U.S. only by Indiana-based Swift Fuels. It now serves up to 66 percent of the U.S. piston fleet, said Chris D’Acosta, the company's CEO.

The federal inquiry, known as an endangerment finding, will evaluate whether leaded fuel used by airplanes is a threat to public health.

"It's the first step to do federal rulemaking on curbing lead from aviation fuel," said Alejandro Dávila Fragoso with Earthjustice, an environmental non-profit that represented the groups.

According to the EPA, children’s exposure to neurotoxic lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.

The agency in 2008 set new standards for airborne lead. Two years later, they identified several of the regions that failed to meet clean air standards for lead as located near airports where avgas is used. Yet, lead was allowed to remain in the fuel.

The fight gained steam last summer when one of the petitioners, Santa Clara County, studied the blood lead levels of 13,000 children living near the county-owned Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose, finding blood lead levels similar to increases found during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan, which they linked to exposure to leaded aviation fuel.

Santa Clara County officials announced a ban on the sale of leaded avgas at its two airports, starting in January 2022.

That prompted a backlash from airport industry groups, who argued that many small planes aren't FAA approved to use unleaded fuel.

San Diego airport officials have said pilots will have to be informed of the newer types of fuel before they are introduced. In addition, new fuel tanks will have to be planned and built.

Health advocates say the longer the wait, the more children will encounter lead.

There are 10 schools, four community parks, playgrounds, or rec centers, and two childcare centers within a mile or so radius of Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport, according to the Montgomery Gibbs Environmental Coalition. Some Serra Mesa homes are only a city block from the airport entrance, and one elementary school is within a half-mile of the field.

Later this year, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a proposed endangerment finding that will be followed by a public notice and comment period. A final endangerment finding may be issued in 2023.

While it may lead to a nationwide ban on avgas, supporters say it will take years to complete the regulatory process.

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There are twelve elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools exposed to the flightpath of Montgomery Field. - Image by Andrew Miller
There are twelve elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools exposed to the flightpath of Montgomery Field.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week the beginning of what may be the end of leaded airplane fuel - the only kind sold at Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa and Brown Field in Otay Mesa.

Among the petitioners who requested the inquiry is San Diego-based Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, which has been prodding the city to offer unleaded fuel alongside its leaded aviation gas, known as avgas.

The unleaded alternative, known as UL94, has been available for years, and is sold in the U.S. only by Indiana-based Swift Fuels. It now serves up to 66 percent of the U.S. piston fleet, said Chris D’Acosta, the company's CEO.

The federal inquiry, known as an endangerment finding, will evaluate whether leaded fuel used by airplanes is a threat to public health.

"It's the first step to do federal rulemaking on curbing lead from aviation fuel," said Alejandro Dávila Fragoso with Earthjustice, an environmental non-profit that represented the groups.

According to the EPA, children’s exposure to neurotoxic lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.

The agency in 2008 set new standards for airborne lead. Two years later, they identified several of the regions that failed to meet clean air standards for lead as located near airports where avgas is used. Yet, lead was allowed to remain in the fuel.

The fight gained steam last summer when one of the petitioners, Santa Clara County, studied the blood lead levels of 13,000 children living near the county-owned Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose, finding blood lead levels similar to increases found during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan, which they linked to exposure to leaded aviation fuel.

Santa Clara County officials announced a ban on the sale of leaded avgas at its two airports, starting in January 2022.

That prompted a backlash from airport industry groups, who argued that many small planes aren't FAA approved to use unleaded fuel.

San Diego airport officials have said pilots will have to be informed of the newer types of fuel before they are introduced. In addition, new fuel tanks will have to be planned and built.

Health advocates say the longer the wait, the more children will encounter lead.

There are 10 schools, four community parks, playgrounds, or rec centers, and two childcare centers within a mile or so radius of Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport, according to the Montgomery Gibbs Environmental Coalition. Some Serra Mesa homes are only a city block from the airport entrance, and one elementary school is within a half-mile of the field.

Later this year, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a proposed endangerment finding that will be followed by a public notice and comment period. A final endangerment finding may be issued in 2023.

While it may lead to a nationwide ban on avgas, supporters say it will take years to complete the regulatory process.

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