At the regular Santa Clara County Board of Supervisor virtual meeting held on Tuesday, officials from Santa Clara County discussed the findings published in an airborne lead study report recently released regarding the environmental impact of the airport on the surrounding community.
The culprit this time? Leaded fuel purportedly driving higher blood lead levels (BLLs) in local children.
This forms the latest chapter in an ongoing quest by various factions to close the airport—a locus for flight training and an important reliever field to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport for decades.
The pilots and business operators at Reid-Hillview are used to responding to community pressure, and last year came up with an action plan to mitigate any results of the survey by answering its main concern—the presence of lead in avgas, and by extrapolation, in the emissions of piston-powered aircraft based at the field.
The study left out the other sources of lead in the airport environs, including “lead-emitting industrial facilities [that] are more common in the vicinity of airports,” and “exposure to lead-based paint [that] is primarily a problem in older homes.” Both sources are prevalent around Reid-Hillview and have been tracked for decades.
Upon further inspection, the report also indicates that the BLLs found in the surrounding community were no higher than those found in other areas within the region. From the San Jose Spolight: “The report, released last week, found that out of 17,000 blood samples from children ages 0-18 within 1.5 miles of the airport, only 1.7 percent have elevated lead levels which call for further testing and observation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is between 1.5 percent and 2.6 percent depending on age.”
In anticipation of the report, however, local airport operators had already come up with a solution: To replace the 100LL available at KRHV with unleaded Swift 94UL avgas.
The fuel is a drop-in replacement for 100LL, requiring no supplemental type certification for about 60 percent of aircraft engine/airframe combinations—unless specifically required—such as the Lycoming O-320s and O-360s that power a broad range of training aircraft on the field.
Though the outcome report itself shows those levels are no more elevated than other neighborhoods in the greater San Jose area, community groups are using the report to inflame tensions between local residents and the airport—and operators such as Trade Winds Aviation are moving forward with plans to utilize the Swift fuel.
Walt Gyger, owner of Trade Winds Aviation, employs 40 people locally and the company’s fleet has grown to 12 airplanes—doubling the fleet and employees in last 10 years. Gyger has another location at the San Martin Airport (E16) to support Trade Wind’s expanded training, aircraft rental, and shared ownership operations.
He’s the founder of CAAPSO, the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation that seeks to bring together community and airport operators and pilots around Reid-Hillview.
Gyger relates that this latest movement caps a 30-year quest driven by developers that want the land. “It was noise before, it was safety before, now they’ve picked lead,” Gyger told Flying.
The county, which governs the airport, in 2011 refused any further FAA monies so that the associated 20-year grant assurances requiring the county to continue to operate the airport would expire in 2031.
“We made efforts to bring unleaded fuel to the airport, so we know that’s not really the issue,” said Gyger. In fact, he’s received the first load of Swift fuel UL94 on Friday. “It strikes a chord with families, so it’s hard to dismiss it. We don’t like lead either so we pursued it.”
In fact, he expects even more good things to come from the switch.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the impact on the engines, how much cleaner the engines will be. Sticking valves may be a thing of the past.”
However, Gyger foresees a serious precedent that would be set if the county succeeds in closing the airport based on a report on leaded fuel.
“What Santa Clara County is doing will have an effect on every airport in the nation,” Gyger said. “Every airport has opponents, and they will make this claim.”
There is hope, however, and a path for other airports to consider. Gyger relates a conversation he had with the primary researcher on the study: “The researcher agreed that removing the lead from the avgas would have the same effect on reducing overall lead impact as closing the airport.”