Silicon Valley advocates of Reid-Hillview Airport closure face opposition
A Beechcraft Model 23 Sundowner sits on the tarmac. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Disagreements over the danger lead airplane fuel poses to East San Jose neighborhoods came to a head at a virtual forum about the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport.

The Silicon Valley chapter of environmental justice organization Mothers Out Front invited Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez to its monthly meeting Wednesday for a presentation detailing the need to close the more-than 80-year-old airport.

Chavez introduced a motion in 2018 to stop accepting federal grants to fund the airport. The decision called for inviting San Jose to explore alternative land uses once funding runs out in 2031 and the airport closes. Supervisors voted Nov. 17, 2020 to begin the planning process for repurposing the land.

“We already knew there’s no safe level of lead in blood, and that Reid-Hillview aviation emits a lot of lead,” Chavez said.  “It’s not just about the kids in the neighborhood, we bring other kids under the flight path to study and to play.”

But opponents of the airport closure said the facility is used for emergency response to help fight wildfires and create local refueling stations. About 10 employees provide support services at the airport, and others use the space for flight training—as do San Jose State Aviation and Technology Department students.

In Feb. 11, 2020, Santa Clara County commissioned epidemiologist Dr. Sammy Zahran, who analyzed waterborne diseases in Flint, Michigan, to study the lead level in 13,000 children near the airport, factoring out lead from nonaviation sources.

Though findings were anticipated to go before the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in March, Chavez said this week the study would not be completed and released until late July. It’s expected to return to the board for discussion on Aug. 17.

“They said we won’t have the results of the lead study yet, and I said let’s keep the meeting on because we want to get the word out to our supporters that this is a problem,” Mothers Out Front team coordinator Susan Butler-Graham said. Butler-Graham, who moderated the meeting, said parents living near the airport worry about their children’s levels of lead exposure.

Those opposed to the airport’s closure raised concerns over county officials declaring airborne lead levels as unsafe ahead of the study’s release.

“To say the levels of lead at Reid-Hillview are dangerous is an assertion unsupported by fact,” San Martin Neighborhood Alliance President Stephen McHenry told San José Spotlight. “It sounds like one of the things (Chavez) is going to bring up in that August meeting to vote to close the airport.”

County supervisors voted in 2018 to explore the possibility of consolidating Reid-Hillview’s aviation uses with the San Martin Airport, which would effectively move the lead fuel aircraft into the small village just north of Gilroy.

“Why would you want to move a problem and inflict that lead issue on San Martin residents?” asked McHenry.

Chavez responded that fewer people live close to San Martin Airport compared to Reid-Hillview.

A February 2020 Environmental Protection Agency study showed the Reid-Hillview Airport contributes to high lead levels, but the extent of its contribution was not outlined.

According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure is preventable and no level of exposure is known to be without harmful effects. Lead exposure in children can lead to permanent adverse effects on the brain and nervous system.

Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley team coordinator Susan Butler-Graham hosted a virtual meeting Wednesday with advocates of the Reid-Hillview Airport closure. Screenshot by Vicente Vera.
Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley team coordinator Susan Butler-Graham hosted a virtual meeting Wednesday with advocates of the Reid-Hillview Airport closure. Screenshot by Vicente Vera.

When the meeting opened for questions, McHenry asked Chavez if she would still consider closing the airport if planes switched to unleaded fuel.

“I probably would,” Chavez said. “But let me just say one thing about (unleaded fuel) as a possibility. 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.”

Alum Rock Union School District Trustee Andres Quintero took issue with opponents of the airport closure accusing lawmakers of ulterior motives for repurposing the land, such as wanting to attract developers.

According to a recent survey sponsored by community group District 5 United, 67% of 1,290 residents surveyed are opposed to closing Reid-Hillview Airport.

Last year, Supervisor Mike Wasserman cast the lone dissenting vote to accept a report analyzing potential future uses of the airport. But at his request, the board added pilots and the San Martin community in the engagement process.

But according to McHenry and San Martin Planning Advisory Committee member Sandra Hoskin, outreach efforts to have yet to be seen.

“It didn’t seem like I had a straightforward way to get involved in the decisions that are being made,” Hoskin said.

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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