Santa Clara County to study lead levels near airport—again
Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Santa Clara County is planning another study of airborne lead levels around Reid-Hillview Airport after banning the sale of leaded plane fuel at the facility a year ago.

Deputy County Executive David Campos told a group of East San Jose residents about the new study at a community meeting this week. This is the third study on lead levels around the the airport since 2021.

He said the new study will help county officials determine the current level of danger from airborne lead and the impact of the ban of leaded fuel.

“There is an intention to analyze the level of lead in the air after the action of not selling leaded fuel,” Campos said, noting county officials haven’t decided on a scope or timeline for the study.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last August to nix the sale of leaded fuel at county-owned airports—the first in the nation to do so. Pilots can still fuel their planes with leaded fuel elsewhere and land in Reid-Hillview.

The decision to ban the sale of leaded airplane fuel came after a county-commissioned study found elevated lead levels in the blood of children living around the East San Jose airport.

The percentage of children with high lead levels in the study is consistent with the state average, San José Spotlight previously reported, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no safe level of lead in the body. The county commissioned a second study last year, examining lead levels in the soil around the airport.

The pros and cons of the airport

The 2021 study has renewed calls from residents to close the 85-year-old airport, which is surrounded by East San Jose neighborhoods.

For decades, 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 say the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes, helps train aviation students and supports emergency operations.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who represents the area, has led the efforts to close the airport and brought the fight to ban leaded aviation fuel to Congress last month, as federal officials consider a national ban on leaded aviation fuel.

County supervisors also voted in 2018 to close the airport by no longer accepting Federal Aviation Administration grants. While the soonest it can close is 2031, officials are fighting the agency to shut it down sooner at the urging of Chavez.

Walter Gyger, who owns a flight school at the airport, said the new study could help keep the airport open. He estimates 80% of flights coming in and out of the facility use unleaded fuel. Opponents of closing the airport also argue the lead levels could’ve come from other sources, such as house paint in the area.

“This is good news,” Gyger, who’s also a board member of the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, told San José Spotlight. “For a year now, many have been using unleaded fuel so I’m sure things have changed.”

For resident Maria Reyes, who has lived in the Cassel neighborhood next to the airport for decades, the new study is a waste of tax dollars. She wants the county to close the airport as soon as possible.

“How much of this is it going to continue to cost the taxpayers?” Reyes told San José Spotlight. “The issue still is the same, because there are still airplanes flying that carry leaded gas. That has not stopped.”

The FAA this week approved the use of unleaded fuel from General Aviation Modifications Inc. for all airplanes—a significant victory toward an all unleaded aviation fuel future. When it will see widespread use is unclear, according to national news report.

Reyes said flying airplanes is a privilege, and the safety of the neighborhood around the airport should take precedence.

“Flying a plane is a hobby, and it is not something that is needed,” Reyes said. “What about the safety of our kids? What about the safety of our community?”

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

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