FAA pauses investigation of Santa Clara County leaded fuel ban
Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose is taking center stage in a national fight against leaded aviation fuel after Santa Clara County banned the fuel at its airports. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    The Federal Aviation Administration is temporary suspending its investigation into Santa Clara County’s ban on the sale of leaded fuel at its airports.

    The investigation is on hold for six months as part of an agreement signed this week between the FAA and county officials. The agreement also serves as an invitation for the two county airports, Reid-Hillview and San Martin, to participate in a nationwide study to find best practices in implementing unleaded aviation fuel.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, at the urging of Supervisor Cindy Chavez, voted in 2021 to prohibit the sale or use of leaded fuel at Reid-Hillview Airport, becoming the first in the nation to do so. The decision to nix the use of leaded gasoline came after a 2021 county-commissioned study found elevated lead levels in the blood of children living around the 180-acre East San Jose airport. County officials also voted to close Reid-Hillview Airport and repurpose the land, possibly for affordable housing.

    “This is really incredible and it could be life changing for people here in Santa Clara County and for communities across the country that live near airports,” Chavez, who represents the area and testified in front of Congress last year on the issue, told San José Spotlight. “The FAA is showing a very real interest in this transition to unleaded fuel. I think we’re going to be on the cutting edge of that, because we’ve already demonstrated now for over a year that it’s possible.”

    The study is part of the agency’s effort to achieve a lead-free aviation system by 2030, an FAA spokesperson told San José Spotlight. The agency approved the use of unleaded fuel created by General Aviation Modifications Inc. for all airplanes last year, and other companies are exploring similar options. The study, set to be conducted by an industry-driven research program, will start later this year.

    “The agency anticipates the county airports will join a demonstration project to collect data and develop best practices as the country’s 200,000 piston-aircraft transition to unleaded fuel,” the spokesperson said. “A limited number of other general aviation airports will participate in the demonstration project selling a range of leaded and unleaded fuels.”

    The new agreement with Santa Clara County comes more than a year after the FAA started looking into the county’s decision to ban leaded aviation fuel. The FAA previously said the ban might have been a violation of the United States Constitution and FAA guidelines. The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and other industry groups after the county banned leaded fuel at its airports.

    The FAA investigation has drawn criticism from lawmakers, including Congressmember Zoe Lofgren who previously said the FAA threatening to sue the county over its leaded fuel ban is “backward.” Assistant County Counsel Tony LoPresti said he hopes this new agreement, and the county’s participation in the study, will entice the FAA to end its investigation.

    “The intention is that after six months, the issues the FAA believes might exist will have been resolved and they’ll drop their investigation altogether,” LoPresti told San José Spotlight. “We believe we have a lot to share with airports throughout the nation, being able to operate without selling leaded fuel.”

    A yearslong debate

    Reid-Hillview Airport has taken center stage in the national fight to ban leaded aviation fuel since 2021. In San Jose, advocates have pushed to shutter the airport, saying plane crashes, noise and leaded fuel endanger people in vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods. Opponents and aviation enthusiasts said the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes, helps train aviation students and supports emergency operations.

    Walter Gyger, owner of a flight school at the 86-year-old airport, said he hopes the FAA study will help avoid what happened in Santa Clara County, where pilots can no longer access leaded fuel at county airports. He said he supports the use of unleaded fuel, noting his coalition brought unleaded fuel to Reid-Hillview Airport before the county’s decision, but the county should have continued allowing leaded fuel.

    “(We could have) kept leaded fuel available, and at the same time introduced unleaded fuel. That is what we petitioned the FAA to look into,” Gyger told San José Spotlight. “I think the FAA is realizing that Santa Clara County created a firestorm, and they want to make sure that everybody understands what the safe transition to unleaded fuel looks like.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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