Lawmakers investigate leaded aviation fuel use, put focus on SJ's Reid-Hillview Airport

Amanda del Castillo Image
Friday, July 29, 2022
Lawmakers investigate leaded aviation fuel use, focus on SJ airport
Lawmakers investigate leaded aviation fuel use and put focus on San Jose's Reid-Hillview Airport.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez referenced local impacts of leaded aviation fuel use in her push for a national ban. Chavez testified on Thursday before the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on the Environment. She put focus on Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose.

Chavez wants the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to curb the use of leaded aviation fuel use across the U.S.

"Stopping airplane lead emissions requires government action," she said.

Chavez said the federal government has failed to keep residents who live around Reid-Hillview, healthy and safe.

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"We cannot turn a blind eye to the facts," she told lawmakers. "And the facts are that our children are being poisoned, plain and simple."

Chavez represents the East San Jose district where the airport is located. Footage captured by SKY7 showed Reid-Hillview surrounded by homes.

52,000 residents and 21 schools and childcare centers are located within 1.5-miles of the airport. Within those numbers, 61% of the population is Latino. Beyond putting a cap on harmful fuel use, many told ABC7 News, that they want the airport closed.

"I don't want to see this airport open because the lead is falling on our children," long-time resident, Maria Reyes told ABC7 News. "And when I say our children, it's the minority children. They live in this community."

"Our children are just as worthy as the children living in more affluent neighborhoods," Maricela Lechuga testified.

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In what Chavez called the "absence of the federal government taking action," she explained. "Santa Clara County had no choice but to take action itself to better understand the crisis."

The county commissioned a study that Chavez said revealed children living within 1.5-miles had elevated blood lead levels- blaming airborne pollution from planes.

"Our residents in East San Jose live with this exposure day after day, and they have for over 80 years," Chavez said Thursday.

While Walt Gyger with the group Save Reid-Hillview Airport agreed more needs to be done to ban leaded fuel use, he said the county's study was based on historical data. He suggested instead, that another be done using more recent samples.

"Since we are now using unleaded fuel, one would expect those levels to be significantly different," Gyger shared.

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He said 90% of aviation operations at the airport currently fly with unleaded fuel, and said this has been the case for about a year now.

In January 2022, Reid-Hillview became the first general aviation airport in the nation to ban the sale of leaded fuel, according to a release by Chavez's office.

However, leaded aviation fuel isn't banned nationally, meaning planes can still fly into the airport using it.

"We don't like it either," Gyger shared. "So the sooner we got rid of it, the better. Unfortunately, the industry is lagging behind."

Gyger said his group is mainly pushing to keep the airport open. It's a location he said is critical for pilot training and more.

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"Everybody stepping on an airplane should realize that pilot has been trained somewhere," he added. "May have been Reid-Hillview Airport or any other small airport. But right now, the industry depends on us to produce those pilots."

However, after a plane went belly down on a city sidewalk and crashed into a chain-link fence last Friday, residents said the incident is only adding fuel to their fight.

"We're trying to close the airport," resident Gilbert Reyes said at the crash site. "And this is good ammunition for us right now."

Gyger responded, "The risk is never zero, but we train pilots to get the risk down to a manageable level. We don't know what happened on Friday. So, waiting for the report from the NTSB, which we look forward to learning what went wrong."

Meantime, according to the CDC: "Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health and cause well-documented adverse effects such as: Damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech problems. This can cause: Lower IQ, decreased ability to pay attention, underperformance in school."

The CDC also said there is evidence that childhood exposure to lead can cause long-term harm.

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