The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors will meet tonight to vote on whether it should work with the FAA to see how fast it could close San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport, this after a study found that children living near the airport have a small but significant increase in the level of lead in their systems, even when the study is controlled for other factors.
The study was commissioned by the county last year and was conducted by the same researcher, Dr. Sammy Zahran, who conducted the studies of lead exposure in residents of Flint, Michigan, after the city’s aged and poorly maintained water distribution system was found to contain high levels of lead.
The levels of lead in the bloodstreams of children 18 and younger living near the airport was around 1.83 micrograms, compared to a nationwide average of around 1.3 micrograms, so the increase seems significant. Still, the level at which the Centers for Disease Control suggests medical intervention is 45 micrograms, and its definition of elevated levels starts at 4.5 micrograms. So the levels found in Zahran’s study are not even elevated by the CDC’s standards, though it should be pointed out that any elevation of lead levels in children can cause damage to them.
That hasn’t prevented the elevation of airport opponents’ rhetoric, with one resident’s action committee head describing the existence of the airport as “abuse discrimination and injustice,” as reported by the Mercury News.
Still, more than 2,500 residents signed a petition asking the Board of Supervisors to close the airport, and the Board, it seems, would be more than happy to comply with those wishes. It has been looking for ways to close the airport for years, say lease holders at Reid-Hillview, one of the busiest GA airports in the country. The airport has around 125 aircraft based there, with around 575 operations per day, more than half of those airplanes flying in from elsewhere.
Airport fuel sellers have responded to the closure threat by pointing out that they are in the process of transitioning to unleaded avgas. One seller, AeroDynamic Aviation, says that it is selling only unleaded avgas now, and one of the other fuel providers on the field is in the process of switching out to unleaded fuel, one it can do that. Still, with more than half of the aircraft flying to and from the airport being based elsewhere, and only some aircraft able to use the new unleaded fuels, the tenants at Reid-Hillview only have so much control over the emissions of the airport’s landing and departing aircraft.
According to county officials, the city’s grant obligation to the FAA will require it to keep the airport open for another ten years, though the City of Santa Monica, facing similar restrictions, worked for years to shut down its small GA airport despite similar obligations and succeeded in getting a consent decree allowing it to close the facility at the end of 2028. The FAA had fought against the city closing the airport at all.
The introduction of the argument that lead-based fuel is a hazard to residents, especially children, whether such an argument is supported by the science or not (and it appears to be), will further increase pressure on urban airports as local authorities look to close them and turn the current airport properties into housing and businesses, both of which are more profitable to local governments than taxes and fees generated by airport users.
We’ll update this story as events unfold.