Environmentalists score a victory against toxic airplane exhaust in Westchester and Santa Monica


By Gary Walker

Anti-pollution activists are trumpeting a recent legal settlement with aviation fuel companies that lowers the maximum allowable lead content of airplane gasoline sold at the state’s largest airports, a victory they believe opens the door for statewide elimination of leaded airplane fuel.

Federal studies have found that leaded airplane fuel is a significant source of air pollution in neighborhoods surrounding the Santa Monica Airport and LAX. (Click for maps of areas surrounding SMO and LAX.)

The nonprofit Center for Environmental Health reached an agreement in December with 26 aviation fuel firms — including one serving SMO and LAX — that states the companies will not use or sell gasoline with a lead content greater than 0.56 grams per liter, which is significantly lower than many fuel mixes.

Firms operating at the state’s 23 largest airports (including LAX, SMO, Van Nuys and Torrance) additionally must use unleaded gasoline whenever possible and post public notices that leaded aviation fuel is in use and contains carcinogens.

The Oakland-based nonprofit filed suit in October 2011 under Proposition 65, the state’s safe drinking water and toxic substances enforcement statute, claiming airplane fuel companies expose the public to lead and lead-based compounds.

Most small planes, including piston-engine aircraft and some smaller jets, have continued to run on leaded fuel (known as “avgas”) long after it was banned for automobiles in order to ensure reliable engine performance, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Large commercial jets run on unleaded fuel.

While only a small percentage of aircraft that fly in or out of LAX use leaded fuel, the smaller planes that do are frequently gassing up at Santa Monica Airport. Of some 95,000 arrivals or departures from Santa Monica Airport in 2013, more than 78,000 were of small propeller aircraft.

“We’re hoping that with the settlement in place we will soon see the process of reducing lead in aviation fuel begin in California,” said Center for Environmental Health spokesman Charles Margulis.

The lawsuit cited 2008 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality studies of areas surrounding airports that concluded neighborhoods in Westchester, Playa del Rey and El Segundo are “potentially exposed” to lead emissions from LAX flights. The Sunset Park neighborhood in Santa Monica and portions of Mar Vista are also “potentially exposed” to Santa Monica Airport lead emissions, according to the studies.

Congressman Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), who represents Mar Vista, parts of Santa Monica and residents near LAX, called the requirements of the agreement “a good first step” toward protecting neighborhoods from lead pollution.

“The science shows without question that there are no safe levels of lead in the soil or in the air. Studies show that lead can get into the bloodstreams of young children who live near an airport, so I’m pleased with this agreement and what this means for protecting public health,” Lieu said.

As a state senator, Lieu hosted a September 2013 hearing in Westchester in which scientists testified that children who live near airports are at risk of high-level lead exposure.

John R. Froines, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA, testified about his work analyzing ultrafine particles that found airborne lead particles can enter the lung tissue and remain for long periods of time, increasing the likelihood of asthma and other respiratory diseases in children and cardiovascular disease in adults.

In December 2009, a team of UCLA scientists found a high level of lead in ultrafine particulates east of the Santa Monica Airport runway in Mar Vista and West Los Angeles.

Rebecca Anthopolos, a statistician for the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, testified during the hearing that high levels of lead exposure can lower children’s IQs.

Under the settlement, airline fuel companies will pay out $550,000 to the Center for Environmental Health and its attorneys.

Santa Monica-based Atlantic Aviation, which operates at SMO and has an Imperial Highway facility in Westchester, paid the second highest amount at $28,118.

Gregory Lane, the general manager at Santa Monica’s Atlantic Aviation office, could not be reached for comment.

In addition to setting the 0.56-gram standard, the companies “shall purchase for resale, distribute and sell in California ‘avgas’ with the lowest concentration of lead approved for aviation use that is commercially available,” according to the 56-page settlement agreement. That includes an FAA-approved low-lead blend of avgas known as 100VLL if it becomes available in California.

The agreement also stipulates that warning signs will read: “The area within one kilometer of this airport contains lead, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Lead is contained in the aviation fuel that is used by small piston engine aircraft that take off and land at this airport. People living, working or traveling near this location will be exposed to lead as aircraft take off and land.”

There are four unleaded small aircraft fuels currently in the first phase of federal safety testing.

According to a Sept. 8 statement, the FAA anticipates that two or three fuels will be selected for phase-two engine and aircraft testing, and the agency expects to conclude its testing in 2018.

“We’re committed to removing harmful lead from general aviation fuel,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a recent statement. “This work will benefit the environment and provide a safe and available fuel for our general aviation community.”

Margulis said the public has waited long enough.

“The aviation industry always says that it will be seven or 10 more years before they can transition to unleaded gas. We think that’s too long to wait,” he said.

Santa Monica Airport General Manger Stelios Makrides said he does not think the legal settlement, which is specific to California, will motivate the FAA to accelerate approving non-leaded gasoline.

“As the general manager of a municipal airport, I would like to see the federal government expedite the approval process for making non-leaded aviation fuel available throughout the United States,” he said.

Lieu said it is ultimately the FAA’s responsibility to develop an unleaded gasoline alternative using all available technology as soon as possible.

“My hope is that this settlement accelerates the coming of that future,” Lieu said.