The environmental group Friends of the Earth made good on a May 2011 threat March 7, when it announced it had filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over piston aircraft’s use of leaded avgas.
The lawsuit alleges that the EPA unreasonably delayed responding to a 2006 petition asking it to make an “endangerment” finding and propose emissions standards for lead emissions from aircraft. If successful, the lawsuit would force the EPA’s process for a potential endangerment finding onto a court-ordered timeline. An endangerment finding could then start a multi-step regulatory process toward lead emissions standards. But GA groups deeply involved in mapping out the transition to an unleaded fuel pointed to multiple actions the EPA has taken, in conjunction with industry, to assess and minimize the impact of leaded avgas as it moves toward an unleaded alternative.
“Despite the lawsuit, the near-term availability of leaded aviation fuel is not threatened in any way,” said AOPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Rob Hackman. “Members of industry, along with the FAA and EPA, will continue our diligent efforts toward a high-octane unleaded alternative to leaded avgas, with safety of flight as our foremost consideration.” AOPA, the Experimental Aircraft Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Business Aviation Association, and the National Air Transportation Association, the aviation members of the GA Avgas Coalition, also stressed that the FAA, not the EPA, has final regulatory authority over all changes in aviation fuel because of critical safety-of-flight considerations.
The Friends of the Earth’s petition asked the EPA to find that lead emissions from general aviation aircraft endanger public health and welfare or, if it doesn’t have enough information to do so, study the health and environmental impacts of those emissions. The lawsuit trivializes multiple efforts under way to study the emissions and to develop a safe alternative to leaded avgas.
Since the 2006 petition was filed, the EPA has issued new rules that increase the stringency of the national ambient air quality standards for lead by tenfold. The new EPA rules also mandate monitoring of lead measurements near selected sources, even though the vast majority of areas with general aviation airports do not exceed the new stringent air quality standards for lead.
In response to the petition, the EPA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) in 2010, acknowledging the need to collect more information about the issue and asking a series of questions. The agency also established new lead monitoring at 15 specific airports and is an active participant in the FAA’s Unleaded Avgas Transition Aviation Rulemaking Committee, a group formed at the urging of the GA Avgas Coalition that is tasked with producing recommendations to further the development and deployment of unleaded avgas. Although the EPA is charged with establishing aircraft emissions standards, it must consult with the FAA and cannot establish standards that would adversely affect safety. If the EPA does establish emissions standards, the FAA then has responsibility for actually implementing those standards.
AOPA maintains that the EPA’s actions on the issue represent a responsible approach to a multi-faceted problem, and have resulted in decreases in lead production. According to the EPA, lead emissions in the United States have dropped dramatically in the United States since 1980, by about 93 percent.
In addition, avgas production has decreased: The Department of Energy estimates that the volume of leaded avgas supplied decreased by 28 percent, from 326 million gallons in 1999 to 235 million gallons in 2008, according to the EPA’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking. In reducing further the amount of lead emissions that remain, the EPA, FAA, and industry groups must consider technical, economic, and safety-related challenges--but collaboration among the groups has produced results. Recently, the FAA approved a new “very low-lead” fuel specification that has a maximum lead content nearly 20 percent less than the existing 100LL specification.
As industry and government groups address concerns about leaded avgas, they must give proper weight to any solution’s effects on flight safety. Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth, said in a media release that the EPA’s failure to address the pollution of GA lead emissions “leaves us no choice but to take this critical public health issue to the courts,” citing lead exposure of airport workers, pilots, passengers, and surrounding communities. But a hasty ban on avgas would endanger the safety of those very people—a critical concern to the FAA, the agency that has authority over fuel standards.