Santa Clara County nixes leaded fuel at Reid-Hillview Airport, considers early closure
Reid-Hillview Airport. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

After a decades-long fight by activists to shutter a small airport in East San Jose, county supervisors made a historic decision to eliminate leaded fuel by any means—including closing the airport.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to eliminate lead exposure from operations at Reid-Hillview Airport. County lawmakers want to explore prohibiting the sale or use of leaded fuel, and pursuing “any and all available paths to early (airport) closure prior to 2031.”

“This is a land use mistake that should have been remedied decades ago,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who has been leading the charge to close the airport for years. “Now we know we have scientific proof that the neighborhood’s children are being poisoned and that has been going on for generations.”

According to a grant agreement with the federal government, the earliest the airport could close is 2031. But supervisors are adamant the airport can shut down sooner despite potential legal issues from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has opposed the closure.

Supervisor Joe Simitian said he’s ready to petition the FAA for early closure of Reid-Hillview.

“If we don’t force the issue, it won’t get forced,” he said. “So I think it’s time for us to force the issue.”

Simitian also said it made him “nervous” that supervisors were basing their decision to shutter the airport on one study of blood lead levels in children near the airport. He suggested the county commission a second study.

“We’d also have more credibility in the community,” Simitian said.

Chavez and Supervisor Susan Ellenberg did not support a second study.

“This is not something unique to our area. We know leaded fuel is toxic,” Ellenberg said.

Last November, the supervisors began exploring the 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, about 23 miles away just outside of Gilroy.

John Aiken, director of aviation at Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport, shared “grave concerns” at the meeting that the airport’s closure will overload the city’s downtown airport.

“Without investments in San Martin Airport, the board’s actions this evening have the potential to shift general aviation aircraft to San Jose International Airport,” Aiken said. “San Jose International doesn’t have the capacity to absorb these aircraft or activities.”

The county hopes to develop affordable housing on the land in the coming years.

For decades, advocates have called for the airport’s closure, saying it poses safety, noise and lead poisoning concerns. They pushed Tuesday for supervisors to allow East San Jose residents to weigh what to do with the land. Opponents, however, say the airport serves a critical purpose for smaller planes, helps train aviation students and supports emergency operations.

“Do not close the airport or fires will be worse than last year,” said David George, an environmentalist and engineer. “Also, an airport is simply not a racial issue. Stop abusing others’ racial pain to move an agenda. Reid-Hillview provides very attainable flight training for all races.”

A pilots group announced earlier this week a plan to switch to unleaded fuel, but county administrators said leaded fuel might still be used at the airport under certain circumstances.

The push for an early closure comes amid the release of a study commissioned by the county to analyze the blood samples of 17,000 children under the age of 18 who lived within a mile and a half of the county-owned airport from 2011 to 2020.

According to the results released earlier this month, children who lived within a half-mile of Reid-Hillview had higher levels of lead in their blood than those who lived farther away.

But according to a San José Spotlight analysis, out of 17,000 blood samples from children ages 0-18 within 1.5 miles of the airport, only 1.7% have elevated lead levels which call for further testing and observation, according to 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.

Residents under 18 living near the airport had an average blood lead level of 1.83 micrograms, according to the study, while those living in the wind path east of the airport average 2.2 micrograms—still well below the CDC’s criteria for elevated blood lead levels.

But advocates and health leaders say any lead exposure is dangerous to children and families.

“The report documents the ongoing damage to East San Jose children and other people,” said Michelle Coleman of Sacred Heart. “The community has been dealing with these conditions for decades and their health has been impacted. It’s time to stop the harm.”

On Monday, the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, which has pushed to keep the airport open, announced that planes at Reid-Hillview will switch to unleaded fuel for the first time in the airport’s 84-year history.

Still, not all planes at the airport will be able to operate on the fuel. The partnership estimates that approximately 80% of the airport’s single-piston engine planes can use unleaded fuel.

Some callers Tuesday proposed that Reid-Hillview remain open to see the results unleaded fuel will have on the airport. The decision to pursue an early closure could be riddled with legal challenges and repercussions. The county could face lawsuits from the FAA as well as challenges over the environmental analysis process for rerouting planes to the San Martin Airport.

“The fastest way to do this is not to get tied up in years of litigation with the FAA,” said resident Paul Marshall. “Two years from now, the problem will be gone.”

Board President Mike Wasserman, whose district includes San Martin where many residents have opposed the planes being rerouted there, tried to convince his board colleagues to keep the airport open. He suggested the county declare no leaded gas could be used at the airport after Dec. 31—except for emergencies.

“Not only is switching to unleaded the right thing to do, it’s the smartest and quickest way to address and remedy this serious health hazard,” Wasserman said. “The airport is not the enemy. The lead is the enemy. Remove the lead, stop the poison.”

The switch to unleaded fuel is “too little, too late” according to residents and activists who say keeping the airport open perpetuates systemic and environmental racism against low-income people of color who live in the area.

They note that the airport is located in East San Jose—the least affluent and one of the most Latino-heavy neighborhoods in the city. According to county officials, approximately 52,000 people live near the airport.

“This is going to be about public health and poor people’s health versus rich people’s privilege,” said Omar Vazquez, who lives in East San Jose. “I urge the supervisors to vote for public health.”

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

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