Legal battle over lead content in aviation gasoline was more about misguided bluster than public health

By Joe Bates

Piston airplane traffic at Santa Monica Airport has dropped markedly since  a 2009 lead pollution study photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Piston airplane traffic at Santa Monica Airport has dropped markedly since
a 2009 lead pollution study
photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

In response to “Getting the Lead Out,” news, Feb. 19

The Argonaut’s recent article about a legal settlement regarding leaded aviation fuel was riddled with factual errors and seems to be little more than a misinterpreted mishmash of articles found during an Internet search. It gives the impression that the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has won some kind of huge victory against suppliers of leaded aviation gas in California. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Proposition 65, “The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” is designed to both protect our drinking water from chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects and to provide a way to warn the public about potential exposure to such chemicals. Since Prop 65 was enacted, a number of companies and their law firms have made a very profitable business of suing California companies for failing to provide adequate notice that chemicals in use on their sites were on a list of more than 750 chemicals noted by the state of California to potentially cause cancer. These chemicals vary in toxicity from almost none to high risk.

Lawsuits instituted by CEH have largely resulted in consent agreements where no finding of guilt was made, large fees were awarded to CEH and their law firm, and the net result was simply that companies were required to post notices of potential Prop 65 hazards more prominently than before. In other words, even though CEH and their lawyers have made a lot of money from various settlements, it doesn’t appear that much has changed in the marketplace or that consumers have become better protected.

In the first paragraph of his article, reporter Gary Walker states that the settlement “lowers the maximum allowable lead content of airplane gasoline.” It does nothing of the sort. Current lead content of aviation gasoline is regulated by a consensus standard developed by a committee of the American Society of Testing Materials, an international standards body. ASTM D910 specifies a maximum of 0.56 grams of lead per liter in 100LL avgas. No aviation gasoline can have more than this amount of lead and meet the specification, so what victory is Mr. Walker referring to? There are no “fuel mixes” that contain more than 0.56 g/l of lead sold in California, so no new standard was set by this settlement. Where did he get this idea and who fact-checked the article?

The settlement provides that  fixed-based operators and fuel suppliers provide Prop 65 warning notices wherever fuel
is sold — just like those you see on the side of the gas pump where you fill your car. Nothing special there.

The story notes that “some smaller jets have continued to run on leaded fuel.” Jets don’t run on gasoline, no matter what size their engines are. Anyone with an even cursory knowledge of aviation would know that turbine (jet) engines run on Jet A, a fuel similar to kerosene. Jet A does not contain lead and never has.

The article cites testimony regarding high levels of lead exposure possibly lowering children’s IQ levels as if it had some relevance to our local airports. Most childhood lead exposure is from lead paint particles found on or in the vicinity of older buildings. Even at the highest levels found in the studies, the lead levels sampled in locations surrounding Santa Monica Airport and LAX were far below the maximum levels set by the EPA. Considering that the study was done in 2009 and piston airplane traffic has dropped markedly at Santa Monica Airport since then, any perceived danger from lead exposure has also been reduced proportionally.

The FAA’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI) program represents the years-long work and input of numerous public and private stakeholders intent on finding a way to safely replace lead in avgas. The intent is to produce a lead-free fuel that safely meets the needs of the entire piston-engine aviation fleet, from 60-year-old piston singles to the most modern multi-engine aircraft. This is a scientifically complex process that must fully satisfy dozens of separate performance specifications in order to make a universal and safe replacement fuel. The end result will be a new ASTM specification that refiners can use to produce a replacement for our current 100LL fuel.

In spite of the CEH representative opining that manufacturers always claim that it “will be seven or 10 more years before they can transition to unleaded gas,” the FAA and the aviation industry have set a path to make that transition as soon as the final fuels are selected near the end of 2018. These fuels will be fully mixable with current leaded avgas and will allow fuel suppliers, airplane owners and operators to safely transition to the new fuel without having to make changes of any kind to the supply chain, the storage facilities or the aircraft.

Perhaps Mr. Walker’s article may not have been so riddled with inaccuracies had he been able to attend the excellent Advances in Alternate Aviation Fuels Workshop that was put on by Santa Monica Airport staff during the Jan. 26 Santa Monica Airport Commission meeting.

Presentations were made by four industry representatives. Dr. Phillip Fine of the South Coast Air Quality Management District provided information on the ground-level ozone challenge that aims to substantially reduce mono-nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions at airports throughout Southern California through a variety of methods, including the introduction of alternative aviation fuels. Ellie Wood of the Boeing Company spoke of her company’s efforts to reduce aircraft emissions worldwide utilizing a variety of alternative jet fuels combined with advances in aircraft and engine design. AltAir Fuels President Brian Sherbacow discussed how his company has worked with our military for more than a decade to produce a molecularly identical bio-based jet fuel that can be a “drop-in” replacement for the current petroleum-based Jet A. BioJet A has a 50%-or-greater reduction in ultra-fine particles and other pollutants and is expected to be available this year. Finally, Chris D’Acosta, CEO of Swift Fuels LLC, discussed his two variants of unleaded 100 octane avgas currently under testing in the FAA PAFI program.

The PowerPoint presentations and summaries are available online at smgov.net/departments/airport/commission/.

Another source of information for those interested in learning how our airports are becoming greener is the website of the Santa Monica Airport Association: santamonicaairport.info. The SMAA maintains extensive archives of information and provides access to numerous industry and public-sector experts who would have been pleased to better inform The Argonaut.

There is already enough misinformation regarding unleaded avgas and its dangers — perceived or real — without spreading more of it through badly researched and poorly written articles.

Joe Bates is a member of the Santa Monica Airport Association’s Green Fuels Committee.  A Venice resident, he has lived under the SMO flight path for more than 30 years and currently flies a Cessna 172.

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