The Biden administration must act on leaded jet fuel

“Instead of a rose garden like in white neighborhoods, we have a lead garden,” testified Marisela Lechuga, an attorney and community leader in East San Jose who is fighting to protect her neighborhood from the lead-based jet fuel used at nearby Reid – Hillview Airport.

Maricela Lechuga speaks at a community rally

Last week, the House Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on the devastating health effects of leaded jet fuel. Although lead-based fuel was phased out of cars and commercial jets decades ago, small piston-engined aircraft can still use it, which is the largest source of lead emissions to US air. Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live near general aviation airports and bear the brunt of the toxic effects of those airports.

This little-known public health crisis affects millions of children across the country. As Dr. Bruce Lanfear, a board-certified physician and public health expert, testified last week, there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Reid-Hillview Airport in east San Jose is a prime example of how high the stakes are. The airport, owned by Santa Clara County, is one of the airports with the highest lead emissions in the country. It is also in a densely populated urban area with 52,000 residents within a 1.5 mile radius, 61% of whom are Latino. Last fall, a study linked the airport to dangerously high blood lead levels in children living nearby, finding elevations on par with those in Flint, Michigan, at the height of the drinking water crisis.

After years of advocacy by community members, including Lechuga and Close Reid-Hillview Now! The Santa Clara County Coalition agreed to take action and ended the sale of leaded jet fuel at the airport. But pilots who refuse to switch to an unleaded alternative can refuel themselves or refuel at other airports and continue to spread lead to the neighborhoods below.

A surefire way to eliminate lead contamination from these aircraft is to ban the fuel altogether. The EPA banned leaded gasoline for cars in 1996, and environmental groups first petitioned to ban its use in general aviation aircraft in 2006. However, the federal government was slow. Despite studying the issue for years, the EPA and FAA now say they need more time to develop alternative fuels – something some industry players are actively fighting against. But alternatives already exist, as witnessed by General Aviation Modifications, Inc. and Swift Fuels testified last week. The ban will encourage additional competition and development.

Federal action on this crisis is long overdue. We cannot continue to sacrifice the health and safety of children of color to the pressures of industry and agency bureaucracy. The EPA and FAA should listen to the people of East San Jose and act quickly to ban leaded aviation fuel once and for all.

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