Santa Clara County’s fight to ban leaded aviation fuel might lead to changes nationwide—with one elected official poised to speak before Congress this week.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who has led efforts to ban the fuel at county-owned airports will testify in front of the Congressional Oversight Environmental Subcommittee on Thursday. The subcommittee, chaired by Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna, is considering a total ban on leaded aviation fuel.
“The Congressional Oversight Environmental Subcommittee I will testify at on Thursday is significant because it is focusing on banning leaded aviation fuel nationally,” Chavez told San José Spotlight Friday.
At the urging of Chavez, the Board of Supervisors voted last August to prohibit the sale or use of leaded fuel at the Reid-Hillview Airport—becoming the first in the nation to do so.
The local decision to nix the use of leaded gasoline came after county officials voted to close the East San Jose airport and repurpose the land, possibly for affordable housing. For decades, advocates have pushed to shutter the airport, saying that plane crashes, noise and leaded fuel endanger people in vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods. Opponents say the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes, helps train aviation students and supports emergency operations.
The county commissioned a study last year that found elevated lead levels in the blood of children living around the East San Jose airport.
“Airborne lead is a health crisis impacting millions of children,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “Our airborne study showed approximately 52,000 households surrounding Reid-Hillview Airport have been affected by airborne leaded gas and that can be detrimental to children’s brain development.”
The congressional hearing comes months after the Environmental Protection Agency approved a petition from the county to evaluate whether leaded fuel used by airplanes is a threat to public health and welfare. The agency has plans to declare leaded fuel as a health hazard by 2023.
On Friday, days before Chavez prepared to take her fight to Congress, a small airplane crashed near Reid-Hillview airport — leaving the pilot seriously injured and intensifying the fight to close the airport. More than two dozen activists and residents rallied at the airport Saturday to highlight its risk to the neighborhood.
“What happened this weekend is not a one-off issue,” Huascar Castro of Working Partnerships USA told San José Spotlight. “This has happened before and the safety of neighborhood residents is at serious risk.”
A yearslong debate
Reid-Hillview Airport, centered in East San Jose and surrounded by the Evergreen neighborhood, opened roughly 85 years ago. The airport, sitting on 180 acres, has served private pilots, flight schools and emergency operations. Many advocates and elected officials have pushed for the airport’s closure for decades, calling it a social justice issue. Some are hoping to rezone the land for much-needed affordable housing.
A county-funded study in 2021 examined 17,000 blood samples collected between 2011 and 2020 from children living near the airport. The study—conducted by doctors who studied the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—showed higher blood lead levels for kids living closer to the airport.
The percentage of children with high lead levels in the study was consistent with the state average, a San José Spotlight analysis found, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no safe level of lead in the body. A different study released in June, also commissioned by the county, found no dangerous lead levels in soil samples taken at the airport.
County supervisors voted in 2018 to close the airport by no longer accepting Federal Aviation Administration grants. The soonest it can close is 2031—but officials are fighting the agency to shut it down sooner.
Opponents argue the lead levels could’ve come from other sources, such as house paint in the area. Some opponents, including the Eastridge Little League team which was banned from using the airport’s fields after more than 50 years, are questioning the county after the soil study found lead levels below local, state and federal thresholds.
“The (first) study has significant shortcomings,” said Walter Gyger, board member of the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, referring to the study of children’s blood lead levels. “Then this study shows low lead levels in the soil. The county tried to convince the federal government there’s a health crisis, which is bogus.”
The study, conducted by Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering, took 32 soil samples around Reid-Hillview Airport. None of the samples returned lead levels exceeding the danger determined by San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board, the state of California or Environmental Protection Agency, the study reads.
Santa Clara County Airport Land Use Commissioner Diego Barragan said he wants more information about the threat the airport poses.
“My personal take on it is to analyze and determine again what levels of lead we do have there because there’s a community that is adjacent to the airport,” Barragan told San José Spotlight.
As Chavez takes a national stand against leaded fuel, Santa Clara County officials’ hands are tied when it comes to redeveloping the airport. Nothing can be built on the land until it closes.
“There isn’t any redevelopment plan at this time,” Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos told San José Spotlight. “If the Board of Supervisors and the county were to proceed at any point, it would be with extensive community involvement.”
Gallegos added the county is launching an outreach plan about future redevelopment at the airport.
The county Airport Land Use Commission will meet Wednesday, a day before Chavez’s congressional hearing. Barragan said he expects an update on the future of the airport at the meeting.
“They can talk housing, they can talk redeveloping the area, but we haven’t heard anything about that or seen anything come before us,” Barragan said. “This is all speculation right now.”
But the recent soil study is a positive step for reusing land after the airport closes.
“The positive outcome of the soil study means we have an opportunity to eventually redevelop community parks, have fire protection and other resources that will come out of a second community engagement process,” Chavez said.
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.