Silicon Valley lawmakers want to ban leaded plane fuel
Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose is taking center stage in a national fight to ban leaded aviation fuel after Santa Clara County banned the fuel at its airports. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Two Silicon Valley congressmembers are vowing to take the fight to ban leaded aviation fuel to the White House.

Congressmembers Ro Khanna and Zoe Lofgren renewed calls for the Federal Aviation Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to take immediate action to stop the use of leaded airplane fuel on Thursday at Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who represents the area and has led the efforts to ban leaded fuel at county-owned airports, joined the federal officials. Airplanes using leaded fuel can no longer refuel at Reid-Hillview Airport as of last August.

Khanna, chair of the Congressional Oversight Environmental Subcommittee, hosted a hearing last month on the issue, but officials from the FAA and EPA didn’t attend. The lawmakers said leaded aviation fuel has a direct impact on six million children living near airports across the country—including those near the East San Jose airport.

“There are some things in politics that are challenging and complex, this is not one of them,” Khanna said. “We’re going to take this to the White House, because it is simply unacceptable in our community or any community in America for kids (to) be poisoned by leaded fuel at airports.”

Silicon Valley Congressmember Ro Khanna speaks at Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose on Sept. 8, 2022. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and Congressmember Zoe Lofgren stand to the left. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Lofgren criticized the federal agencies for dragging their feet on the issue—and for threatening to sue the county for banning the sale of leaded fuel at its airports.

“That seems pretty backward. Why would the FAA prevent the local government from protecting their own community?” Lofgren said. “We have a very deep concern about how much the department actually does care about poisoning children.”

Reid-Hillview Airport has taken center stage in the national fight to ban leaded aviation fuel. The county’s decision to ban leaded fuel came after a county-commissioned study found elevated lead levels in the blood of children living around the airport. The percentage of children with high lead levels in the study is consistent with the state average, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no safe level of lead in the body.

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.

The county ordered another study earlier this year which showed no dangerous lead levels in soil samples taken at the airport and has plans do another study of airborne lead levels around the facility.

The lawmakers also called for the FAA to host a meeting in San Jose to hear directly from residents.

The Department of Transportation released a statement Thursday saying safety is the agency’s top priority.

“In Santa Clara County, the FAA has outlined a path that would allow the airports to have safe lead-free operations,” a spokesperson said, adding the federal government approved the use of unleaded fuel created by General Aviation Modifications Inc. for all airplanes last week. “We continue to work with the county in efforts to reach a mutually acceptable implementation timeline to make this happen.”

Lofgren said the FAA has not halted its investigation over the county’s leaded fuel ban, adding she wants the agency to mandate unleaded fuel—not just allow it.

“This is the last sector in transportation where leaded fuel is allowed,” she said. “It needs to stop.”

John McGowan, a pilot and board member of Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, said he’d rather see the county investigate other sources of lead impacting the neighborhood. He said lead from aviation fuel shouldn’t be a concern anymore since 80% of the planes coming in and out of the airport now use unleaded gas. Pilots can still fuel their planes with leaded fuel elsewhere and land in Reid-Hillview Airport.

“We’re fine with using unleaded fuel,” McGowan told San José Spotlight, noting lead could also come from paint, plumbing and other sources. “If we’re using unleaded fuel, there’s no reason to shut down the airport.”

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

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