San Jose airport closure could poison another neighborhood
Reid-Hillview Airport. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

County officials are working to shut down Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose, citing lead exposure for surrounding residents. But shutting it down could shift the lead burden onto another low-income neighborhood: Washington-Guadalupe.

Should Reid-Hillview close, some Washington-Guadalupe residents fear planes en route to Mineta San Jose International Airport will bring leaded fuel pollution to their neighborhood, which is approximately six miles from the airport.

“We’re in a community that already has so many different pollutant sources. We need to be really careful not to add one more,” Brett Bymaster, executive director of the Healing Grove Health Center in Washington-Guadalupe, told San José Spotlight. He suggests moving air traffic to San Martin Airport 23 miles to the south—a possibility supervisors have explored in the past. “When you have tens of thousands of low-income children of color living right on the flight path, multiple schools right on the flight path, we just have to think strategically.”

Lead levels

A recent study commissioned by the Board of Supervisors found elevated lead levels in the blood of children living within a 1.5-mile radius of Reid-Hillview Airport. The study looked at 17,000 blood samples from youth 0-18 between 2011 and 2020. While children closer to the airport have elevated blood lead levels, a San José Spotlight report shows that only 1.7% of children in the study have blood lead levels that warrant further testing and observation, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is between 1.5% and 2.6% depending on age.

Though officials want to close the airport, they are also looking to eliminate lead exposure in the interim. Last month, supervisors voted to ban planes from using leaded fuel. A day before, Reid-Hillview pledged to run as many of its planes on unleaded fuel as possible.

A plane flies over the neighborhood of Washington-Guadalupe. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The heavily Latino neighborhood of Washington-Guadalupe is near a Southern Pacific railroad corridor and crisscrossed by Highway 87 and Interstate 280, contributing to noise and car pollution.

Washington resident Monica, who declined to give her last name, knows the dangers of lead poisoning all too well. She said she learned her daughter suffered from lead poisoning when she was younger, though she isn’t certain of how her daughter was poisoned.

“The airplanes where I am I hear all day because they pass over my roof,” Monica told San José Spotlight. “I cannot imagine how bad our community will turn if this move happens. I really worry.”

In a memo last month, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said he was concerned the closure of Reid-Hillview would mean more traffic to San Jose’s downtown airport, directly in the flight path of several low-income neighborhoods. He added that increased general aviation traffic to the airport would slow commercial flights down. Liccardo pushed the county to explore directing traffic to alternate airports, including San Martin.

“Shifting the exhaust from lead-based aviation gas from East San Jose communities to even lower-income neighborhoods in the Mineta flight path will not solve the problem, but merely burdens yet another set of high-poverty, densely-populated communities of color,” Liccardo wrote. “It is imperative that the county play a leadership role to study impacts of Reid-Hillview closure, both assessing the potential harm to neighborhoods like Guadalupe-Washington, and options for building capacity in neighboring facilities based on the likely flight redistribution.”

‘It’s a poor people community here’

Officials have raised concerns for years that planes taking off and landing at the 82-year-old Reid-Hillview Airport, which used leaded fuel for decades, have poisoned the 52,000 mostly Latino and Vietnamese residents who live near the airport. Advocates say the airport poses safety and noise concerns and that the land could be better used for much-needed affordable housing. Opponents, however, say the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes and emergency operations.

“I agree that the (Reid-Hillview) airport should be closed because there’s a lot of people getting sick,” Washington-Guadalupe resident Maria Marcelo told San José Spotlight. “But then the airplanes are going to come around Washington because they need to find a place. That’s going to kill the community of Washington. It’s a poor people community here.”

John McGowan, a private pilot and board member of Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operations, believes Reid-Hillview’s transition away from unleaded fuel will help with pollution and hopes the switch will keep Reid-Hillview open.

Simply diverting traffic to the San Martin Airport, McGowan says, is not a viable option for business and other personal travelers who come into San Jose regularly.

“While the mayor and several councilmembers would like to avoid upsetting residents of East San Jose who simply don’t like having an airport in their neighborhood, it is not possible to close Reid-Hillview without having negative impacts on Mineta airport and the community at large,” McGowan told San José Spotlight.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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