An air pollution study released last month that tracked the air quality during a four-day closure at the Santa Monica Airport indicated that there was a much higher level of ultrafine particulates when the airport was open.
City Councilman Kevin McKeown called for the analysis when the city-owned airfield was closed last year for runway repairs between Sept. 20 and Sept. 23. The South Coast Air Quality Management District conducted the study, which included testing done before, during and after the airport closure.
“The difference in air quality was extremely significant, with black carbon emissions and ultra-fine particles 12 to 17 times higher in at least one location when the airport was open,” McKeown told The Argonaut. “Moreover, they were able to tie pollution spikes to jet operations.”
Residents who live near the airport have long contended that the exhaust from jets has loomed over their homes and neighborhoods like a pall, and some believe it has been a direct contributor to respiratory ailments in their neighbors and pets.
McKeown’s decision to take advantage of the airfield closure by requesting the air quality analysis stems from what he said are the city’s ongoing efforts to provide data to federal lawmakers as well as to the Federal Aviation Administration on the airport’s operations and how they affect air quality in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The air quality management district’s report states that concentrations of particulate lead and ultrafine particles near the airport were found significantly higher than the corresponding levels present further away from the airport. Sharp and rapid increases in concentrations occurred when the jet aircraft were idling, the report states, and lower levels were recorded during the time when the airfield was closed.
In addition, a noise consultant hired by the city and air quality experts conducted baseline sound measurements.
The councilman said the study categorically demonstrates that jet exhaust taints the air for his constituents and those in nearby Mar Vista.
“This scientific data I asked for, collected by the impeccably impartial SCAQMD, shows once and for all that the airport compromises our neighborhood air quality, and specifically that jet operations increase nearby air pollution,” he asserted. “No longer can the FAA credibly tell us that the airport doesn’t have some very significant environmental impacts.”
FAA officials say there are procedures in place to limit jet exhaust at Santa Monica Airport. Jet operators are asked not to start their engines if they know there will be Santa Monica departure delays due to conflicts with Los Angeles International Airport departures.
FAA officials have also noted that due to the proximity of the 10 Freeway, automobile pollutants could be a source of pollution in Santa Monica, Mar Vista and Venice.
Martin Rubin, the executive director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, acknowledged that cars do contribute to air toxins, but believes that the results of the new study are proof-positive that aircraft exhaust is an even bigger contributor.
“Of course automobiles contribute to air pollution,” he admitted. “However, residents living downwind of the airport have always been able to know the difference in the strong smell of jet exhaust and this SCAQMD study showed no significant spikes (in pollutant measures) when Santa Monica Airport was closed to refurbish the runway.”
Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn said airport officials have forwarded the report to their consultants for their review.
Santa Monica Airport Association President Steven Stiry has not seen the report, but noted that there are other general aviation airports within Los Angeles County. He wondered why there was seemingly an intense focus on Santa Monica’s airport regarding air pollution.
“I don’t understand why certain local officials and certain organizations always single out Santa Monica Airport,” he said.
Other studies have been conducted at the airport in recent years, including one by Dr. Suzanne Paulson, a UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Paulson and her team found a high level of ultrafine particulates in the eastern edge of the airport in 2009.
“During our research, we found detectable levels of (particles) around the eastern portion of the airport,” Paulson told The Argonaut. “They are clearly coming from somewhere.”
Stiry agrees that there could be some pollution emanating from the airport, but said there were also studies that indicate automobile traffic can be harmful to those who live near freeways.
Rubin said the air quality management district’s analysis discredits any theory that the majority of air pollution is generated by the freeway.
According to FAA records, annual operations at the airport have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1999.
In 1999, there were 230,000 operations at Santa Monica. In 2009, there were 113,000
While he applauds the recent air quality study, Rubin says Santa Monica lawmakers have not done all that they should have to combat the toxins from the airport.
“Santa Monica has been silent about air pollution at the airport for far too long,” he said. “Santa Monica claims it has a fly neighborly program, (but) blowing toxic jet emissions into your neighbors’ homes is not neighborly by any decent standards.”
McKeown pointed to the latest air pollution analysis as proof that the city is acknowledging its constituents’ concerns.
“Air pollution is an issue around many airports, but Santa Monica has now done the hard work of proving that specific pollution comes from identifiable aircraft operations,” the councilman countered. “What we still don’t have are scientific health studies showing a threshold for exposure that we could use to convince the FAA that this airport as currently operated doesn’t belong in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”
McKeown said this could give the city increased bargaining power when its contract with the federal government ends in four years.
“We now have one more good reason to negotiate major changes when the current airport operation agreement with the federal government expires in 2015,” he said.”
The FAA contends the agreement ends nine years later, in 2024.