Every few minutes, as young children run across the blacktop and climb jungle gyms at Carver Elementary School, small aircraft fly overhead spewing harmful lead emissions, the kind that have been banned in cars since the 1990s.

Lori Shepler, whose children attend Carver, frets each time she sees one of those planes, which have become increasingly common this year as the number of noncommercial flights from aviation schools, hobbyists and other small-plane pilots reached an eight-year high in Long Beach.

It’s an especially urgent issue for her because Shepler’s 6-year-old daughter is a kidney cancer survivor, making her more susceptible to respiratory issues and the impacts of airborne toxins such as lead.

“My daughter is exposed to the toxins from the airport on a daily basis,” said Shepler, who worries about the well-documented, long-term health effects of lead exposure in children like damage to the nervous system, slowed development, behavior problems and speech delays.

In August, Shepler got a glimmer of hope from local officials. At a press conference, the airport announced the arrival of unleaded gas for general aviation — essentially any flights other than commercial jets, which already use unleaded fuel. As part of a photo op, Mayor Rex Richardson even topped off a plane with the newly arrived, safer fuel that was now available for purchase.

“Cleaner flight, cleaner mobility, cleaner aviation is the goal,” Richardson said while acknowledging this is just one step toward that goal.

But in the months since that photo op, the arrival of unleaded fuel has done little to mitigate the risk to Shepler’s daughter and other children under the flight path.

Airport records show aviators are buying vanishingly small amounts, if any, of the unleaded gas compared to its leaded counterpart. From August through November, Long Beach Airport’s main fuel supplier, Signature Flight Support, purchased 992 gallons of unleaded fuel to sell to small-plane pilots. During that same period, they bought magnitudes more leaded fuel — nearly 200,000 gallons in all.

A single-engine plane flies over Carver Elementary School Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Without a subsidy program in place, unleaded fuel is still significantly more expensive for pilots to buy, and if Long Beach were to mandate its use, it would risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding, leaving local officials caught between the economic realities of running an airport and the health of the residents they’ve pledged to represent.

While crafting a longer-term plan, city staff has been reduced to simply asking small aircraft operators to make the switch away from a fuel they know is harming residents.

“They want to show that they’re trying to do something,” Shepler said of the local officials who have pledged a cleaner, safer airport, “but, unfortunately, it’s not working.”

The Long Beach neighborhoods directly east of the airport, under the typical flight path, have a much worse air quality than those to the west, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, and it’s no mystery why.

“Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions in our air,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan recently said in a statement announcing the release of a long-awaited determination stating definitively what many have known for years: lead emissions from aircraft engines are a public health hazard.

“The science is clear: exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects in children,” Regan said in the Oct. 18 announcement.

It was the federal government officially validating Shepler’s concerns, but the determination was purely academic. The EPA report ended with a note that the findings do not “ban or impose restrictions on the use, sale, distribution, dispensing, and general availability of leaded fuel.” Instead, the agency said the Biden-Harris administration can “move forward in the process to propose new standards.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has set a goal of eliminating lead from aviation gas no later than 2030. But Shepler, who has been ringing the alarm on the issue since the summer of 2022, is pushing for swifter action.

She’s found a sympathetic ear in some local politicians including Long Beach City Council members Cindy Allen, Megan Kerr and Roberto Uranga. The trio authored a letter in November urging the federal government to move up the 2030 deadline, saying that “with the health and safety of our citizens on the line, this is simply not soon enough.”

Beyond the sentiments expressed in that letter, however, local government may have little power to help unless it is willing to give up its federal funding.

Long Beach Airport is a federally obligated facility, meaning the city has accepted federal money to buy land, develop or improve it. In fact, the city has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government for the airport, according to an Oct. 31 memo from airport Director Cynthia Guidry.

“It would be extremely difficult and unreasonable for the city to attempt to return long-term federal dollars, nearly $350 million, to obtain local control of airport regulations,” Guidry wrote.

The FAA has sole jurisdiction over airspace, preventing airports from limiting operations in the sky, but facilities that are not federally obligated can enact ground-based policies such as limiting hours or types of services to reduce general aviation activity and noise.

In October, for example, the Torrance City Council voted unanimously to ban “touch-and-go” landings at Zamperini Field Airport after residents complained of increased noise and pollution from flight schools. The move likely pushed more operations to Long Beach.

Attempts to more strictly regulate takeoffs and landings could also result in the city losing its limited control of flight operations. The federal government took control of noise abatement at airports in 1990, but because Long Beach’s local noise ordinance was already in place, it was grandfathered in.

Through that ordinance, the city limits daily commercial flights, including hours of operation and the number of departures, but it has looser limits for general aviation, only outlining the hours of operation with no limit to the number of flights.

A single-engine plane flies over East Long Beach Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Any attempts to alter the ordinance could open it up to legal challenge and cause it to be thrown out entirely, according to Guidry.

Without a feasible stick to forcibly limit small-plane operations or their use of leaded fuel, city officials are turning to a carrot: cash.

Leaded aviation gas is significantly cheaper at Long Beach Airport. Fuel supplier Signature sells it for $7.59 per gallon compared to $11.39 per gallon for the unleaded alternative.

To bridge the gap, airport staff has proposed $200,000 in subsidies allowing Signature and other providers to sell unleaded fuel for the same price as leaded. The City Council is set to consider the funding during its Jan. 23 meeting.

The unleaded gas being sold, meanwhile, is only compatible with 60% to 70% of the piston-powered, small-engine aircraft, with the remaining fleet requiring a higher-octane fuel that is not yet commercially available in an unleaded form.

There is some hope on the horizon. General Aviation Modifications, Inc., or GAMI, is on the verge of releasing a high-octane fuel that could power all general aviation craft at Long Beach. The fuel, G100UL, is FAA approved and expected to hit California airports in the first quarter, according to Field Service Manager Tylor Hall.

“We’re negotiating with the large distributors,” Hall said, adding that a plant in Houston is preparing to produce millions of gallons of the fuel per month.

To encourage pilots to use the new fuel as soon as possible, Long Beach is also offering them a one-time payment of up to $300 to help offset a fee they’re required to pay when they switch to unleaded fuel. Operators have to pay the fee for a certificate authorizing them to use unleaded fuel because the planes were designed to run on leaded gas, and switching to unleaded — although safe — technically counts as a modification to a tightly regulated aeronautical product.

Depending on the type of plane, the fee can run from $200 to $1,000. The reimbursement may not cover the whole cost of the fee, Hall said, but it’s “a major step forward.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the City Council will consider the fuel subsidy on Jan. 23.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.