Will unleaded fuel prevent the San Jose airport’s closure?

Despite Monday’s announcement that a flight school’s owners and private pilots at Reid-Hillview Airport would begin pumping their planes with unleaded fuel, elected officials and community leaders intensified their demands that the airport in East San Jose be shut down.

In the wake of a recent county-commissioned study that found children living close to the airport had elevated levels of lead in their blood, residents who live near the airport delivered more than 2,500 signatures Monday afternoon to the Santa Clara County clerk’s office and held a rally. They want the county to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to shutter the airport sooner than 2031 — the date officials say is the earliest it can close because of federal grant obligations — and redevelop the land for affordable housing and other community needs.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider whether to pursue that goal.

“I assure you that if the children of the FAA members, the children of pilots or the children of supervisors had been victims of this abuse, we would not be having this discussion. No one would want to wait 10 years to close the airport,” said Maria Reyes, vice president of the Cassell Neighborhood Association and a resident who lives under the airport’s flight path. “This abuse, discrimination and injustice will no longer be tolerated by our communities. Enough is enough. It’s time to close the airport.”

Meanwhile, Reid-Hillview flight school owners and private pilots announced Monday morning that — for the first time in the airport’s 80 years in operation — unleaded fuel would be offered to for aircraft flying in and out of the airport.

The owners of AeroDynamic Aviation — a flight school and one of four fuel providers at the airport — got rid of the last of their leaded fuel on Saturday and filled up their tank with 7,000 gallons of unleaded gas.

According to owner Jen Watson, the company is one of the first flight schools west of the Rockies to run completely on unleaded fuel. A second Reid-Hillview fuel provider is expected to receive a similar shipment of unleaded fuel within the next week.

The move comes after years of complaints regarding the harm leaded fuel was doing to nearby residents, particularly children, and just two weeks after the county released the new study validating those concerns.

“It’s important for people not to see us as the villains because we really are trying to meet any requests or data that comes up,” Watson said. “We really do care.”

SAN JOSE, CA – AUGUST 3: A plane is seen taking off at Reid-Hillview Airport from a nearby neighborhood in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. A new study concluded that during periods of high air traffic, children living near the airport experienced similar levels of lead exposure to children in Flint, Michigan during the city’s water crisis. The county is pushing to close the airport. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

At the center of the Reid-Hillview controversy is the fact the piston-engine planes that use the airport ran almost exclusively on leaded aviation fuel — the last type of gas permitted to contain lead in the U.S. Lead has been banned from automobile gasoline for decades and larger jets run on unleaded Kerosene-based fuel.

Lead is a neurotoxin that — even at low levels in the blood — can stunt a child’s physical and cognitive development, resulting in lowered IQ, decreased attention span and academic underperformance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any trace of lead in children can be harmful.

The county commissioned a study last year 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 2011-2020. The results, which were released less than two weeks ago, found that children who lived within a half-mile of Reid-Hillview had higher levels of lead in their blood than those who lived farther away — a difference of about .40 micrograms per deciliter, or one-tenth of a liter.

But the elevated blood levels of children around Reid-Hillview appear to be on par with those across the state. The county-commissioned study noted that 1.7% of children in the vicinity of Reid-Hillview had lead levels high enough to warrant additional screening. The statewide average for the same threshold is 1.5%, as first reported by San Jose Spotlight.

Nevertheless, experts still say there is reason to be alarmed.

Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a pediatric epidemiologist and professor at Simon Fraser University who was tasked with reviewing the study, said the key takeaway of the Reid-Hillview study was that it identified the true source of the children’s lead exposure after accounting for lead paint in homes and other potential sources in the area, such as legacy airborne lead emitting from a former racetrack in the area and nearby highways.

“The question is not does the airport put these children at a greater risk than children in other communities, the real question is does leaded aviation fuel put children in this community at a greater risk for having lead poisoning — and the answer from this report says yes, absolutely,” Lanphear said.

Reid-Hillview opened in 1939 and was purchased by the county in 1961. Once surrounded by sprawling farms and orchards, the airport today is sandwiched between thousands of homes, neighboring parks and nearly two dozen schools and child care centers.

As airport operations have increased over the years, so have the demands for Reid-Hillview’s closure, especially in light of the potential for lead exposure.

The Board of Supervisorslast November voted to explore the possibility of consolidating operations at Reid-Hillview with those at San Martin Airport — approximately 23 miles southeast — but residents there are worried that they will then be subject to the same lead exposure issues.

SAN JOSE, CA – AUGUST 3: An air traffic control tower is seen at Reid-Hillview Airport from a nearby neighborhood in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. A new study concluded that during periods of high air traffic, children living near the airport experienced similar levels of lead exposure to children in Flint, Michigan during the city’s water crisis. The county is pushing to close the airport. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

Flight schools and pilot hobbyists that use the airport say the solution is simple — a transition to unleaded fuel.

“It’s important to reaffirm here that transitioning Reid-Hillview Airport to unleaded fuel has the effect of eliminating this airport as a potential source of lead in the blood of children of anyone else at the airport,” said John McGowan, a private pilot and board member of Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operations — an organization intent on keeping the airport open. “We understand lead is harmful and we are glad to be taking this step toward eliminating lead at this airport.”

That’s what the San Carlos Airport did. Dan DeMeo, the owner of Rabbit Aviation Services, has been selling unleaded fuel to pilots at that airport for the past five years.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in late 2014 required fuel providers to stock and sell an unleaded fuel option after an Environmental Protection Agency study found that the San Carlos Airport had the highest concentration of airborne lead particles out of 17 small airports surveyed.

Since then, DeMeo said the product has become more available and the price of unleaded fuel has dropped by nearly $2 per gallon. Today, he is selling unleaded fuel at the airport for about 10 cents cheaper than leaded fuel at San Carlos Airport.

“Price has been a barrier for sure, but the interest in unleaded fuel is sincere,” he said. “I think we’re about two to three years away from making this transition fully and then lead is not going to be an issue anymore.”

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