FAA to investigate Santa Clara County leaded fuel ban at airports
Planes at Reid-Hillview Airport are pictured in this file photo.

The Federal Aviation Administration has started a formal investigation into Santa Clara County’s policy to ban the sale of leaded fuel at its airports starting Jan. 1.

In a letter sent to the county on Thursday, the FAA said it will investigate to determine whether the policy is a violation of the United States Constitution and other FAA guidelines. It also advised the county to halt the ban on leaded fuel implemented by county supervisors because of concerns of lead toxicity around Reid-Hillview Airport.

The investigation is the result of complaints leveled by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and other industry groups. On Dec. 14, the coalition sent a letter to the FAA in a last-ditch effort to reverse the leaded fuel ban.

The industry groups also claim the county is refusing to grant long-term leases to pilots once their term expires on Dec. 31—another claim the FAA is investigating.

The FAA gave the county 20 days to respond, instead of its usual 30 since it found “the circumstances require expedited handling of a particular case or controversy,” the federal agency said in the letter.

The coalition pushing for the FAA to act is comprised of the AOPA, Experimental Aircraft Association, National Business Aviation Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, National Air Transportation Association and Helicopter Association International.

They believe stopping the sale of leaded 100LL fuel at county airports could lead to misfuelling, or using the wrong type of fuel, which could lead to engine failures. Some airplane engines in the United States are not approved to use unleaded fuel. Airplanes that can use a lower-octane unleaded formulation must get a certificate to legally use that fuel, AOPA said in a statement.

“Yes, we all want leaded fuel out of general aviation, but the answer needs to be as safe as it is fast, not with willful disregard for safety,” said AOPA President Mark Baker in a statement. “Charging toward an arbitrary date with little to no consideration for safety poses a great and unnecessary risk to general aviation pilots and local communities. Let’s get this done together—but smartly.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez calls for the closure Reid-Hillview Airport on Aug. 16. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who has been at the forefront of the fight to close Reid-Hillview Airport and prohibit the use of leaded fuel, disagreed. She said the date is not arbitrary.

“We gave notice because we voted on this in August and many of the advocates said don’t worry, we can already fuel with unleaded fuel,” Chavez told San José Spotlight, referring to discussions that took place on closing Reid-Hillview Airport.

She also said the primary obligation for her and the county was to ensure the safety and health of residents—noting lead levels, regardless how small, have irreversible impacts on child development, according to a county-commissioned study.

“When we recognize there’s a threat to the health and safety of the people who live in our community and work in our community, we have an obligation to respond,” Chavez said. “This is in response to us understanding that there’s no safe amount of lead for humans.”

Harry Freitas, county director of roads and airports, echoed a similar sentiment. He emphasized Santa Clara County gave ample notice and direction to pilots when the ban was passed on Aug. 17 and repeatedly since then.

Freitas also disagreed with the notion the ban would put pilots at risk. The availability of certain types of fuels is well publicized in aviation reference materials and readily accessible to all pilots, he said.

“Pilots are required to review those references before they fly to airports. There is unleaded fuel available at a lot of other airports,” Freitas told San José Spotlight, noting pilots can choose where to get their fuel.

He said while he cannot comment on the FAA’s letter in detail, as it is now a legal matter, it didn’t come as a surprise to him.

“Lead is dangerous, and the airline industry has not treated this issue with urgency,” Freitas said. “Now it’s time to perhaps treat it with more urgency.”

He said Santa Clara County is still on track to stop selling leaded fuel at its airports and will not reverse the policy until there is clear direction from the Board of Supervisors to do so.

The Office of the County Counsel declined to comment.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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