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California pilot points out lead fallacies

Santa Clara County used bad data in Reid-Hillview study

A pilot at Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, California, pulled no punches in a letter he sent to the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency, copying the FAA. The thoughtfully worded letter by Michael McDonald, a professional engineer and local aircraft owner, pokes holes in the county’s study that lead from avgas is causing contamination in the area around the airport.

The letter was accompanied by a 19-page analysis by McDonald refuting much of the findings and methodology used by the county.

Acknowledging that the “switch to unleaded aviation fuel is overdue” and urging the FAA to act, he reveals for the EPA the real reason the county has eliminated the sale of 100LL at Reid-Hillview (and also at nearby San Martin airport). The county’s motive is “to close an airport and thereby reap a quick financial windfall. They have dressed up their financial motives with a pretext of health concerns for the marginalized,” he wrote.

Even worse, “the County needlessly creates unwarranted concerns for all families living near airports and undeservedly devalues all communities near airports. They are not helping these communities as they profess; they are hurting them and redirecting scarce health resources in the wrong direction.”

As a result of its study, the county elected to stop the sale of 100LL avgas at the airport as of January 1, and now only allows the sale of Swift Fuels 94UL fuel. The 94-octane unleaded Swift fuel is a viable choice for those flying low-compression engines, but high-compression engines require 100 octane. Heretofore, no 100-octane unleaded fuel has been made commercially available, although there are promising products on the horizon.

In his report to the EPA, McDonald points out that the lead plume predicted by the county’s study based on runway location and prevailing winds doesn’t match the actual data. He notes that the equipment used to measure lead in the area is antiquated and not suitable for detecting such low levels of lead. In addition, there are numerous other potential lead sources in the community.

McDonald points out that a nearby now-decommissioned raceway emitted more lead per week than the airport when it was active; that major thoroughfares bisect the area, for many decades depositing lead from automotive tailpipe emissions; and perhaps most compelling, that the area historically was largely orchards, and that lead arsenate was popular for pest control. Further, the county study assumes that use of leaded paint ceased in 1960, when the actual cessation date was 1978.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which has been monitoring lead in the air for years near the airport, plans to discontinue monitoring there because local lead levels are well below EPA standards, suggesting there is no crisis.

With 100LL no longer being sold at the airport, McDonald suggests the county has the opportunity to validate its study by resampling the air in the area. If lead levels haven’t changed, then it’s clear that the airport hasn’t been an issue all along. 

In a video interview with AOPA, McDonald said he hopes his letter and analysis to the EPA and FAA will spur the FAA to act more quickly in getting to an unleaded high-octane fuel. He also hopes the documents will arm the EPA and members of the aviation community with the facts. Calling Reid-Hillview a “canary in the coal mine,” he fears that other communities across the nation will use Santa Clara County’s inaccurate data as an excuse to make bad decisions at their airports, incorrectly deploying health care resources and unnecessarily frightening families.

AOPA has created a resource page for those interested in learning more about the effort to eliminate lead from avgas.

Unleaded fuel consultant Paul Millner contributed to this report.

Thomas B. Haines
Thomas B Haines
Contributor (former Editor in Chief)
Contributor and former AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
Topics: Advocacy, Financial, Avgas

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