Santa Clara County officials voted on Wednesday evening to close Reid-Hillview airport in San Jose, California. The airport is considered one of the most important GA-reliever airports in the nation and certainly the hub of activity in the Bay Area.
The action came just over a week after the board got back a study that it had commissioned last year on the effects of lead pollution on children who live close to the airport. The study found that levels of lead were somewhat higher in those 18 and under than average levels around the country and in the rest of the city, though they were barely above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers normal, and they were about five times lower than levels the agency deems hazardous.
Still, the Board voted to close the airport as early as it possibly could. The move would still require approval by the FAA, and it is unlikely that the agency would OK such a sudden and drastic move on an airport under federal grant obligations. The FAA fought for decades against moves by the city of Santa Monica, California, to close its municipal GA airport, and it is likely to push back against the board’s decision, although under President Joe Biden, the EPA has acted swiftly to reverse former President Trump’s largely hands-off approach to environmental issues such as automobile fuel economy, oil drilling and industrial emissions. So given the current administration’s perspective on all things environmental, the FAA’s course of action is far from certain.
And complicating the issue is that light aircraft primarily use leaded fuel. That fuel, 100 Low Lead, is the only leaded fuel that has been approved for use in any application in the United States for the past 50 years, and aviation has been slow to develop and field unleaded fuel options.
This is, in part, because of the FAA’s understandably cautious approach to the approval of such fuels and in part because of fuel developers’ failure to come up with chemistry that works reliably and safely, at least as far as the FAA is concerned. The challenge is steep on creating a fuel that works safely with higher-performance light planes, which account for around half of the avgas-burning fleet.
Regardless, even under the most aggressively pro-environmental approach, it’s unlikely the FAA would approve the shutdown on such a rapid schedule. And Santa Clara County’s Board of Commissioners has come out strongly against the continued existence of Reid-Hillview for years, leading some industry analysts to believe that the emergency closure vote is merely a maneuver for the Board to do what it has wanted to do but has been unable to for decades, that is, close the small GA airport so it could repurpose the extraordinarily valuable land it sits upon.
There is also the issue of the focus and validity of the study, which singled out areas around Reid-Hillview and not other county locations likely to have negative health impacts upon county residents.
We’ll keep you apprised of developments in this case, which has strong implications for the continued operation of GA airports near urban centers around the country.