By Luyi Cheng
Just five blocks away from the Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California, Maricela Lechuga lives among a community of 52,000 residents who are predominantly Latino, many also immigrants.
The general aviation airport does not serve commercial air travel, but does serve a range of other public aviation activities; in 2019 it had more than 200,000 take-offs and landings.
It is also known as one of the highest lead emitting airports in the United States, a fact spotlighted Thursday in a U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform subcommittee hearing called to examine health harms associated with leaded aviation fuel.
The Clean Air Act banned leaded gas for passenger cars in 1996 after phasing in an unleaded gasoline. However, lead fuel continues to power over 170,000 piston-engine aircrafts mainly flown for hobbyist, private, emergency, or training purposes. These planes and helicopters contribute about 70% of all lead emissions to the air in the United States, according to a 2021 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Despite petitions calling to ban leaded aviation fuel that date back to 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to address the issue through regulation, a delay that is creating injustice and danger for people living not just near Reid-Hillview Airport, but numerous others around the country, according to critics.
Lechuga was among those testifying before Congress on Thursday in a new push for regulatory action.
“This is the chance for Congress to help right a historical wrong, by banning the use of lead-based fuel and allowing us to close the Reid-Hillview Airport,” Lechuga said in her opening statement to the hearing. “This is a clear injustice against our community.”
Communities situated near about 20,000 other similar airports in the country include mostly people of color and low wealth, Representative Ro Khanna, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment, said in his opening statement.
A study last year found that children living near Reid-Hillview Airport had higher lead levels in their blood than children in Flint, Michigan at the height of the water drinking crisis in 2014, said Khanna.
Lead exposure negatively impacts development and behavior in children and can also increase blood pressure, damage kidney function, and cause reproductive issues in adults. No level of lead exposure is safe, according to the World Health Organization.
Lack of action
The EPA states that they are still investigating whether aircraft lead emissions cause air pollution and harm public health.
The agency previously pushed back the release of a proposed “endangerment finding” from 2015 to 2017, which would present the results of the investigation and be open for comments. The agency now plans to release its proposed findings this year and a finalized one in 2023.
The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) also has not taken action to approve alternative lead-free fuels that can power piston-engine aircrafts, despite their availability.
George Braley, CEO of General Aviation Modifications, Inc., testified during the hearing that the FAA has delayed signing off on a certified lead-free aviation fuel alternative.
Despite many efforts to invite officials from the EPA and FAA to participate in the hearing, both agencies have refused to cooperate, according to Khanna.
Representative Yvette Herrell, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Environment, called upon Representative Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, to issue subpoenas to the EPA and FAA to compel their testimony on the issue of leaded aviation fuel and lack of action.
“It is unconscionable that each official [from the EPA and FAA] refused to testify at today’s hearing,” said Herrell.