Santa Clara County has started the process to close Reid-Hillview Airport, but its future—and the supposed danger of lead exposure to surrounding residents—hangs on an upcoming health survey.
The survey, conducted by the county, will be released to the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 17, according to county officials. It will examine whether residents in Reid-Hillview’s flight path—the Latino-heavy East San Jose—are exposed to lead from planes flying overhead, as well as give recommendations for land use and updates on potentially closing the airport.
The county will hold two community meetings to solicit input: one on Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. primarily for East San Jose residents and another on Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. for South County residents.
County officials were not immediately available for comment about the airport’s closure.
If Santa Clara County supervisors go through with a proposal to consolidate Reid-Hillview’s operations with San Martin Airport just outside of Gilroy, San Martin residents could be exposed to elevated lead levels.
“We’ve been seeing quite a few articles in regard to how San Jose residents feel about the closure (of Reid-Hillview),” said Sharon Luna, secretary of the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance. “Sometimes it’s for the closure, sometimes it’s not.”
Luna said the alliance lobbied the county for months to be included in conversations about consolidating Reid-Hillview’s operations in San Martin. They’re concerned that the county hasn’t consulted San Martin residents enough about the consolidation and without knowing for sure if lead contamination is solely from planes.
She also feels that even if the upcoming survey doesn’t find lead exposure, San Martin could still be used for Reid-Hillview’s operations. Luna recounted watching a conversation Supervisor Cindy Chavez had with advocacy group Mothers Out Front in May.
When Luna’s colleague, alliance president Stephen McHenry, asked Chavez if she was in favor of closing the airport even if the planes there switched to unleaded fuel, Chavez responded, “I probably would.”
“But let me just say one thing about (unleaded fuel) as a possibility,” Chavez said at the time. “I think it’s very likely over the next 20 years we’ll see leaded fuel go away, but that’s an awfully long time for communities impacted by lead to suffer with it.”
Chavez introduced a motion in 2018 to stop accepting federal grants to fund the airport. The decision called for exploring alternative land uses once funding runs out in 2031 and the airport closes.
Supervisors voted in November to begin the planning process for closing the airport and repurposing the land. They also voted to explore the possibility of consolidating Reid-Hillview’s aviation with the San Martin Airport, approximately 23 miles southeast of Reid-Hillview.
Chavez’s response, combined with months of lobbying for the county to look for alternatives to closing Reid-Hillview, didn’t sit well with the alliance.
“We just feel like there is more to it than lead,” Luna said.
San Martin, with 6,803 residents according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, has fewer people living close to its airport than the area surrounding Reid-Hillview.
Luna believes leaving Reid-Hillview Airport open will help with faster response to wildfires, like the one San Martin experienced last month.
“Our recent fire in the hillside was handled by airplanes and a helicopter,” Luna said. “What would happen if that happened to those in the hillsides of East San Jose? Where would assistance come from?”
But proponents of the airport closure say nearby residents are exposed to noise, lead levels and the dangers of living in a flight path. They point to the inequities already experienced by East San Jose residents and say the land could be used for much better purposes, such as critically-needed affordable housing.
“The time to close Reid-Hillview Airport has come,” Salvador “Chava” Bustamante, executive director of Latinos United for a New America, previously told San José Spotlight. “This (airport) is not only an environmental justice issue, but also a huge land use mistake. This 180 acres of publicly owned land could be put to better use.”
A group of San Jose State University students surveyed residents in the vicinity of Reid-Hillview last month and found that a majority of the 40 respondents are in favor of closing the airport, which somewhat contradicts a District 5 United survey that found two-thirds of the 1,300 people surveyed are in favor of keeping the airport open.
The students, part of the university’s masters of social work program, found that some respondents were unaware of potential lead exposure from plane fuel.
“It was just such a flawed methodology. Anybody in the world or us could fill it out,” Maricela Lechuga, one of the students who conducted the resident survey, said about the District 5 United survey. “Not everybody in this community has access to the internet.”
Luna says she doesn’t want any rash decisions made. Instead, she’s waiting on the toxicity survey to give her more information.
“If the lead study shows there is lead from planes, then why would you move it down here?” Luna said. “Are we going to be sacrificed?”