SANTA CLARA COUNTY officials and advocates are rejoicing as the federal government agrees to reassess the use of leaded aviation gasoline nationwide.

During a Jan. 12 news conference, County Counsel James Williams announced the Environmental Protection Agency approved a petition from the county and several environmental organizations to evaluate whether leaded fuel used by airplanes is a threat to public health and welfare. Leaded fuel for cars was banned in the U.S. more than two decades ago, but it is still used by some airplanes, including those at the Reid-Hillview and San Martin airports in Santa Clara County.

“Today is a landmark milestone in the long effort to ban leaded aviation fuel,” Williams said.

The EPA will issue an “endangerment finding” later this year for public review, and then make a final finding in 2023. This finding would potentially allow the EPA to take action under the Clean Air Act to curb the use of leaded aviation fuel.

Marcie Keever, program director for Friends of the Earth. (Photo by Tran Nguyen/San Jose Spotlight)

A coalition of environmental groups joined the county in its petition, including Friends of the Earth. Program Director Marcie Keever said her organization has spent almost 20 years trying to get rid of leaded aviation fuel, including filing multiple petitions and a lawsuit against the federal government in 2012.

“We’ve known for more than 20 years there is no safe level of lead,” Keever said. “This is a wonderful first step.”

Because federal action may take years to go into effect, Santa Clara County decided to ban leaded fuel effective Jan. 1. To justify its urgency, the county pointed to a study it released last year that found elevated levels of lead in the blood of children who live near Reid-Hillview Airport.

Environmental justice

San Jose Congressman Ro Khanna applauded the EPA’s decision, citing the county’s lead study as evidence of the urgent need for action.

“Putting a stop to pollution from piston-engine planes is an environmental justice and public health issue,” Khanna said in a statement.

Local community leaders say the lead ban helps correct historic environmental racism that has afflicted East San Jose for decades. Maricela Lechuga, an attorney and neighborhood leader with Cassell, said the lack of political representation in East San Jose until the 1980s led to airports being placed in low-income neighborhoods predominantly populated by immigrants and Latinos.

“It’s not a coincidence that neighborhoods like Rose Garden got a rose garden and we got a lead garden,” Lechuga said.

Maricela Lechuga, an attorney and Cassel neighborhood leader. (Photo by Tran Nguyen/San Jose Spotlight)

The ban triggered complaints from groups like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association who are concerned it could cause problems fueling aircraft and result in engine failures. More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it was initiating an investigation to determine if Santa Clara County violated any agency rules by ending the sale of leaded fuel.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, whose district contains Reid-Hillview, said county officials have been meeting with the FAA for a long time, and both agencies have a role to play in resolving the leaded fuel issue.

“My expectation is for the EPA and the FAA to move as though their children’s lives depended on it,” Chavez said.

The battle over Reid-Hillview Airport

Chavez and county officials have worked for several years to close the more than 80-year-old Reid-Hillview Airport, citing declining revenue and various safety and health concerns. In 2018, the county did not apply for a grant from the FAA to fund the airport’s maintenance because it would have required keeping the airport open for another 20 years. In November 2020, the Board of Supervisors voted on plans to repurpose the 180-acre airport for affordable housing.

A critical turning point occurred last year after a county study found slightly elevated blood lead levels in thousands of children living near Reid-Hillview Airport. There are 21 schools and childcare centers near the airport. The county has noted even small lead levels can have severe impacts on childhood development. The study led the Board of Supervisors to end the sale of leaded fuel at its two airports.

A survey last year found a majority of San Jose residents oppose closing Reid-Hillview Airport. The San Martin Neighborhood Alliance and other local advocates want the county to consider keeping Reid-Hillview open for planes used to fight wildfires and conduct rescue efforts during natural disasters — in addition to preventing the diversion of air traffic from Reid-Hillview to San Martin Airport.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.