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County of Santa Clara Officials Urge Rapid Action from Federal Authorities as Environmental Protection Agency Moves to Regulate Leaded Aviation Gas

The milestone EPA action opens a path toward a nationwide ban on leaded aviation fuel

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF.— The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Wednesday that it will grant a petition filed by the County of Santa Clara and a host of environmental groups that aims to eliminate lead pollution from aircraft throughout the United States, with plans to finalize what’s known as an “endangerment finding” in 2023.

The move was celebrated by County officials, environmentalists, and communities as the first step toward a long-sought goal: A nationwide ban on leaded aviation fuel.

County officials called the EPA action a milestone and urged the agency to work diligently with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to best facilitate a switch to unleaded aviation fuel for the 170,000 piston-powered aircraft across the country – similar to what was accomplished for motor vehicles 25 years ago.

“This is a very welcome announcement, and also way overdue,” said County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who represents the area surrounding Reid-Hillview Airport in East San José, which was the focus of a lead study that found 13,000 children living nearby were adversely affected by lead pollution from aircraft using the facility.

That study led to the County of Santa Clara ending sales of leaded fuel at its two airports (Reid Hillview and San Martin) on January 1, 2022. 

“The County made a commitment to end leaded fuel sales at our airports on January 1, and we kept our promise,” said County Executive Jeffrey V. Smith, M.D., J.D.  “We will do everything in our power to protect the health of our East San Jose residents. We want the FAA to support our efforts to protect the lives of children and families.”

“There are airports all across the nation subjecting children to poisonous fumes every day,” Supervisor Chavez said. “It’s a known fact and a serious problem, and past time to really take steps toward fixing it.”

The EPA’s letter states that the agency plans to issue a proposed endangerment finding this year. That will be followed by a public notice and comment period, after which a final endangerment finding may be issued in 2023.

The endangerment finding can ultimately lead to a nationwide ban on leaded aviation fuel, which is the only transportation fuel not currently regulated by the EPA and accounts for 70% of the lead released into the air. Environmentalists have been petitioning the EPA to take such an action for 15 years. While County officials celebrated the EPA’s action, they cautioned that it will take years for the EPA to complete the regulatory process and implement a ban on leaded aviation fuel. 

County Counsel James R. Williams called on the FAA to support the County’s action to ban the sale of leaded fuel at its airports to protect surrounding communities. 

“We are encouraged by the steps that the EPA is taking, but we have to act now to respond to the community health crisis that lead pollution causes in the neighborhoods around Reid-Hillview Airport,” Williams said.

“We moved quickly after we learned the results of the Reid-Hillview airport study,” said Board President Mike Wasserman. “We hope this announcement from the EPA is seen as a signal to get off the blocks and move quickly to do the right thing.”

The Reid-Hillview study, which was sponsored by the County of Santa Clara, revealed that children living downwind of the airport had blood lead level increases on par with those detected during the peak of the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan. During times of maximum aircraft traffic, children within a half mile of the airport had an increased blood lead level of .83 micrograms per deciliter – nearly twice that observed at the height of the Flint Water Crisis.

Nationwide, an estimated 4 million people live within 500 meters of the 20,000 airports used by 170,000 piston-engine aircraft that continue to use leaded aviation fuel. About 600 schools (K-12) are located in that same close range. Approximately 16 million people – including 3 million children – live within a kilometer of such facilities.  The County, together with environmental organizations represented by Earthjustice, submitted a petition to the EPA on August 24, 2021 to demand that the EPA make a finding that leaded aviation fuel endangers health and begin regulating its use.  The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic has provided ongoing support to the County in its efforts to move the petition forward.

Health organizations agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood, and exposure to even a small amount of lead has a negative effect on cognitive ability and IQ, particularly in developing children, who absorb lead more efficiently than older children and adults.

County officials held a press conference discussing this issue on January 12, 2022.

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The County of Santa Clara government serves a diverse, multi-cultural population of 1.9 million residents in Santa Clara County, California, making it more populous than 14 states in the U.S. The County provides essential services to its residents, including public health protection, environmental stewardship, medical services through the County of Santa Clara Health System, child and adult protection services, homelessness prevention and solutions, roads, park services, libraries, emergency response to disasters, protection of minority communities and those under threat, access to a fair criminal justice system, and many other public benefits.

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Media Contact: María Leticia Gómez / Eric Kurhi,  Office of Communications and Public Affairs, (408) 299-5119, [email protected]

Posted: January 12, 2022