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Forthcoming Study Comes Amidst Legal Threat Over Leaded Aviation Fuel

By Sean Belk - Staff Writer

February 14, 2012 - A regional air pollution control agency in Southern California, in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is planning a first-ever comprehensive study of the air quality levels of Long Beach Airport, according to a spokesperson for the government agency.

The Business Journal learned last week that the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is proposing to conduct a “special study” within the next 12 months, sampling the emissions of lead, ultra-fine particles and black carbon, an indicator of diesel exhaust, from commercial jets and piston-engine aircraft during idling, taking off and cruising. Sam Atwood, spokesperson for the AQMD, said the study would be funded by the EPA, but he did not say how much the study would cost.

The AQMD is a regional government agency responsible for air pollution control in Los Angeles and Orange counties and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Through a 13-member governing board, the agency establishes regulations approved by the California Air Resources Board and the EPA.

While such aircraft pollution reports have been conducted on other nearby airports and the region, Long Beach Airport has never had a study done, according to airport spokesperson Kerry Gerot, who added that airport staff will help coordinate the effort.

In Long Beach, there are currently two monitoring stations that regularly test for lead and other pollutants, Atwood said. In addition to Long Beach, another study will also look at emissions from aircraft in the entire four-county region, he added.

Currently, piston-engine aircraft, such as small size privately owned airplanes, helicopters and others typically known as general aviation, are the only transportation modes in the country that still use lead as an additive in fuel, called avgas or 100-octane low-lead (100LL) fuel. Commercial airlines, large corporate jets and turbo-prop powered aircraft use Jet-A fuel which has no lead, however, still emit diesel exhaust and fine particles.

The last such study done by the AQMD and funded by the EPA was conducted between 2006 and 2007 on air pollution levels at Santa Monica Airport and Van Nuys Airport, both considered the busiest general aviation airports in the country, Atwood said, adding that previous studies have also been done on Los Angeles International Airport.

In the case of Santa Monica Airport, the study, which was published in a final report in 2010, has been the subject of various community meetings of concerned residents worried about the health impacts of reported high levels of toxic pollution, particularly black carbon and lead emissions from aircraft engines. Many of the residents have called for the closure of the airport, due to the lack of a sufficient buffer between the single-strip airport and neighborhoods and schools.

The report found that lead levels in Santa Monica were higher adjacent to the runway and then dropped off in lesser concentrations further out into the community. The higher lead levels, however, “did not exceed the federal air quality standard for lead,” Atwood said.

But community members contend that there is no safe level of air pollution. Health experts say heavy diesel exhaust can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular health issues.

Late last year, California State Sen. Ted Lieu, chair of the state’s Senate Select Committee on Air Quality, hosted public hearings with Santa Monica and Los Angeles residents to address recent studies on airport-related pollution. He is considering the possibility of introducing legislation. Another hearing is being scheduled in the next few weeks.

Federal Push

The implications of aircraft pollution have become a highly contentious subject, with recent calls for federal efforts to step up and find greener alternatives of aviation fuel. Many in the aviation community, however, have balked at efforts to regulate aircraft pollution at the state level and contend that the issue should only be regulated by the federal government through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and through a safe industry standard or else there would be a patchwork of different regulations in every state.

Long Beach Airport, which registered record commercial aircraft operations last year with more than 3 million airline passengers, and which has more than 285,000 general aviation flights per year, currently has a noise ordinance that allows for 41 daily flights for commercial airlines and 25 flights for regional commuter airplanes.

According to a national EPA study on lead pollutions from airports, Long Beach’s Daugherty Field is listed as the second highest for lead emissions in California, below Van Nuys Airport, and the sixth highest in the United States. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences concludes that airports where general aviation is in operation may have a “significant effect on blood levels among children” living closest to the airport.

Mario Fabila, Long Beach Airport’s noise compliance and environmental affairs officer, said in a recent report that, “There are no studies which directly link 100LL to negative health effects near airports.” He added that an environmental impact report in 2007 found that lead in soil samples around the airport “are unlikely to represent a significant human health risk” and were below the state’s threshold for lead-content.

Fabila presented the report on January 19 to the Long Beach Airport Advisory Commission, which was directed by the Long Beach City Council to look into the issue of airport-related pollution and regulations. The advisory commission unanimously approved the report and is expected to report back to the city council on how to proceed in addressing the issue.

While the airport can’t prohibit the use of avgas fuel at the local level, the airport “supports federal legislation, regulations and/or initiatives that promote a financially prudent transition towards safe ‘green’ aircraft fuel while balancing the safety and financial concerns of the general aviation community,” the report states.

Long Beach Councilmember James Johnson, a member of the city council’s environmental committee and who led the charge for the airport advisory board to provide a report on the matter, said he is pleased that the city and aircraft businesses and users have been able to work together to support efforts that may lead to the eventual reduction of environmental impacts of air pollution.

“I’m proud that we’ve been able to work together with the aircraft business community to do the right thing . . . to work on removing lead and other contaminants from fuels,” he told the Business Journal. “By reducing environmental impacts, we can create a sustainable industry that will be strong going into the future and I think that is what it’s all about.”

Johnson added that the item is a timely matter. “This is a very timely action and I think it’s important that communities that are impacted by pollution, such as Long Beach, have a seat at the table to say, ‘If you’re looking at this, don’t forget about the residents that are impacted,’” he said. “Everyone agrees we’re not going to do anything that compromises safety . . . . But, clearly, there are ways to move forward with fuels that are just as safe, are greener and are not necessarily expensive.”

On a national level, the Aviation Rulemaking Committee, or ARC, for unleaded avgas transition was established last year following a recent industry push to find an alternative to leaded aviation fuel. Currently, no safe working alternative exists to fully replace leaded aviation gas for the entire piston-powered fleet. However, the FAA has recently introduced a very low-lead avgas fuel, until a fully unleaded version is available, Fabila said.

Additionally, some smaller airplanes are able to apply for a federal exemption to use unleaded automobile gasoline, known as mogas, through what’s called a supplemental type certificate. But the availability of mogas on airports is almost nonexistent in California due to state environmental regulations and potential liability issues for refineries.

John Lyon, president of a nonprofit group that runs a small airport in Riverside known as Flabob Airport, said he has been pushing for more availability for a transition from avgas to automobile gas for piston-engine airplanes, primarily for mogas being cheaper and more available in the long term.

“We have very older airplanes, a lot of family flying and so on, and people could really use a price break and an assurance that the fuel is still going to be there,” he said. “We’ve been working on it pretty intensively for six or seven months, and so far by no means have we given up.”

As for the environmental concerns of avgas, however, he said the issue is minimal. “A good deal of the lead never makes it out of the airplane,” Lyon said. “It’s captured on the spark plugs and various places like that. The amount of lead that gets into the environment because of use of small airplanes is very, very small.”

Avgas Lawsuit

At the same time, although directly unrelated, several businesses in California that supply and produce avgas to aircraft users are listed in a legal complaint filed by an environmental group that claims the businesses have violated state law by not sufficiently providing warnings to residents near airports about the potential for lead exposure.

Four aviation fixed based operators, or FBOs, that supply avgas to aircraft users at Long Beach Airport are implicated in the lawsuit: AirFlite, Inc., a fully owned subsidiary of Toyota Motor Sales USA; JetFlite International; Signature Flight Support Corporation; and BBA Aviation USA, Inc., according to the complaint.

The suit is being brought by the Oakland based Center for Environmental Health (CEH), a non-profit environmental justice advocacy group, which filed the final complaint on October 25 last year in Alameda County Superior Court. The complaint was filed by the San Francisco-based Lexington Law Group.

The suit is based on Proposition 65, known as California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, established in 1986. The law requires that residents near sources of high lead emissions – and a long list of other toxic chemicals and elements – must be notified of the potential for exposures. All lead found in drinking water above legal limits is prohibited.

The legal claims against five oil companies and 38 aviation fuel retail businesses at 25 airports in California threatens to assess significant civil penalties against the businesses if sufficient warnings about the existence of lead exposure from aircraft aren’t provided to residents living near airports. An initial notice that claimed lead was found in drinking water sources attributed to avgas, has been withdrawn, said Charles Margulis, spokesperson for CEH.

Prop 65, commonly referred to as the controversial “bounty hunter law,” allows individuals and independent groups to sue to enforce the law on behalf of the state’s attorney general. In this case, the aviation businesses and fuel producers could be assessed fines of up to $2,500 per day for lead exposures, including past violations. The law allows CEH to get a 25 percent share of the penalties if the lawsuit is upheld.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), which represents some 2,000 aviation business organizations nationwide, is currently spearheading the fight on behalf of the defendants against the legal threats. In the next several months, the NATA is expected to negotiate the case with CEH on behalf of a coalition of aviation businesses, including the oil companies, which are all paying for legal costs.

“We’re actually paying a proportionate share to all this and it’s actually detrimental to the business,” said John Tary, general manager of AirFlite, Inc. He said the FBO, which supplies both avgas and jet fuel, currently posts Prop 65 mandated warnings about lead exposure surrounding the facility. But, the CEH claims businesses haven’t done enough to notify residents.

In a recent visit to Long Beach Airport, Jim Coyne, president of NATA, said, if the lawsuit were to ever be upheld by the state court, it would open up the potential for numerous more lawsuits and may end up causing a ban of avgas in California, which would devastate the industry nationwide. Additionally, he said the lawsuit is a prime example of a form of “legal abuse,” since many aviation businesses are tied to lease agreements to provide avgas.

The NATA took the case to federal court last year, declaring that federal law preempts Prop 65. However, a federal judge threw out the case since the defendants couldn’t prove industry damages yet. So far, the FAA has not come to the NATA’s defense in fighting the legal claims, Coyne said.

Additionally, some aviation businesses in California say the lawsuit has already impacted aircraft sales. “Potential users of general aviation are concerned, and they’re asking questions about the long term viability,” said Rich Manor, president of Pacific Air Center, a sales affiliate for Cessna, at Long Beach Airport. “Maybe this doesn’t happen this time, but maybe it comes back again in five years . . . . It’s created a lot of concern and a lot of uncertainty within the market, which further negatively impacts an industry that’s already been impacted pretty severely by what’s happened in the economy.”