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Long Beach pursues plan to reduce leaded fuel at airport

As health concerns prompt federal regulators to consider banning leaded fuel in small planes, the Long Beach City Council voted Tuesday to explore ways to help speed the transition to cleaner forms of aviation fuel at their busy airport.

Council members unanimously directed staff to work with city-owned Long Beach Airport and other stakeholders on a plan to reduce lead pollution from planes, citing particular concern for kids who live or go to school near the runways. Options include starting to offer unleaded fuel that’s already on the market for many planes, giving pilots financial incentives to make the switch now and advocating for federal policies that move the entire industry in that direction.

However, the council stopped short of calling for an outright ban on leaded plane fuel at Long Beach Airport, as some residents hoped they would and as one Northern California county already has done.

Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, who introduced the motion Tuesday, said in an interview that he believes the city’s plan to take voluntary action now strikes the right balance between protecting public health while continuing to provide services via an airport that contributes to the local and regional economy. And he said he hopes the Long Beach plan now in the works can serve as a model for other airports around the country.

“It’s an important conversation and I’m glad that there’s new energy around the issue,” Richardson said.

While leaded gas has been banned in automobiles due to health concerns since 1996, with medical experts agreeing for years that there is no such thing as “safe” lead exposure, it’s still widely used by many small planes. Leaded fuel helps address the potentially dangerous problem of engine knocking, which has been largely solved in automobiles thanks to better engine designs, but it remains a concern for the nation’s aging fleet of piston-powered planes.

Out of more than 20,000 airports nationwide, data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows Long Beach Airport ranks No. 2 in country for lead pollution, with planes there emitting nearly 1,600 pounds of lead each year. Van Nuys Airport, John Wayne Airport and Chino Airport  all are in the top 25 on the EPA’s list, while airports in Torrance, Riverside and Murrieta made the top 100.

Such data prompted Lori Shepler, whose twins attend school near Long Beach Airport, to start pushing this summer for a ban on leaded fuel. She cites data showing that in kids, even traces of lead in the blood have been linked in study after study to irreversible developmental problems, including lower IQs and attention disorders.

Lori Shepler was shocked to learn that Long Beach Airport is ranked No. 2 in the country for lead emissions, with smaller planes still using leaded fuel. Shepler’s twins attend a school in the flight path of the smaller planes. Now the mom, seen here in Long Beach on Friday, September 16, 2022, is on a mission to raise awareness and push for change. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

So while Shepler was happy to see some action on this issue Tuesday night, she says anything short of an immediate ban “isn’t going to change the fact that children will still be poisoned by lead emissions near the airport.”

Early this year, Santa Clara County became first in the nation to institute its own ban on leaded fuel at two of its airports. The move came after the county commissioned a study that showed kids living downwind from a San Jose airport had a substantial spike of lead in their blood.

The FAA has criticized the ban, telling Santa Clara County officials they didn’t have that authority. The two still are in negotiations, though county officials say 90% of planes at their airports have now transitioned to unleaded fuel.

Such decisions soon could be out of local government’s hands.

Earlier this month, the EPA proposed an “endangerment finding” for leaded aviation fuel, a move environmental groups have pushed for nearly two decades.

“When it comes to our children the science is clear, exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. Noting that aircraft using leaded fuel are the “dominant source of lead emissions to air in the country” he called the proposed finding “an important step forward as we work to reduce lead exposure and protect children’s health.”

The EPA’s proposed endangerment finding will go through a public comment period before the agency can issue a decision some time in 2023. If the endangerment finding is finalized, the EPA would then propose lead emission standards for planes. Standards could range from limiting use of the fuel to a complete ban, which would likely be phased in over several years.

That sounds like too long to wait for Craig Evans. The retired firefighter from Temecula is leading a grassroots group of 538 residents who want to ban leaded fuel at French Valley Airport, which is owned by Riverside County and sits just outside his city’s limits.

“If it can be changed, let’s change it now,” Evans said.

Evans’ group got active in 2021 to combat noise pollution from planes that fly over homes and schools. But when Evans learned those noisy planes also were still using leaded gasoline, with French Valley ranked No. 86 in the nation for lead emissions, he expanded his group’s mission to also push for a pivot to unleaded fuel.

Despite reaching out to Riverside County supervisors and other local elected officials numerous times, Evans said no one has yet agreed to take up the issue. So he said he was encouraged to see Long Beach take action.

The simplest first step is for Long Beach Airport to start offering unleaded gas, Swift UL94, which is cleared for use in 70% of small planes. (The Federal Aviation Administration on Sept. 1 approved a new type of unleaded fuel that will work in all piston-powered aircraft but it isn’t yet commercially available.)

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City-owned Santa Monica Airport was the first in Southern California to start offering Swift UL94 at its self-service fuel island. In August, two companies that operate at Van Nuys Airport also started offering the product.

Short of a ban, another move available to local governments is to help level the playing field when it comes to cost, with unleaded aviation fuel currently pricier than leaded fuel. To that end, the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners — which oversees both the Van Nuys Airport and LAX — voted in August to waive its 11 cents per gallon delivery fee on unleaded fuel through 2024.

Long Beach could consider a similar fee waiver when staff brings recommendations back to the City Council for a vote.

That report is due back before Christmas.

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