July 26, 2022
Leaded aviation fuel fires decades-long complaint
Sadie Fick

To avoid dropping hazardous lead on residential areas, Bellingham International Airport recommends pilots fly out over the water before turning. (Illustration by Sadie Fick)

July 26, 2022
Leaded aviation fuel fires decades-long complaint
Sadie Fick

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After years of waiting for industry and government to take action, a resident of the Cliffside neighborhood in Bellingham is taking initiative to challenge the use of leaded gas at Bellingham International Airport.

Throughout 2021, Bert Webber, retired marine science biologist who taught at Western’s College of the Environment from its first year, made hundreds of complaints to the airport, one for each airplane he noticed flying over his neighborhood.

His complaint: “Aviation gas is the only fuel in the country with lead in it,” Webber said. “It’s the last outlier.”

Since 1996, using leaded gas was banned in the U.S. for any new vehicles other than aircraft, racing cars, farm equipment and marine crafts according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Last September, leaded fuel was phased out of all global gasoline use, after a two-decade effort led by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Lead exposure can cause higher blood pressure, kidney issues and reproductive problems in adults, higher risk of miscarriage and premature birth, and slower growth, hearing problems, behavioral and learning challenges in children, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Children who live within a thousand meters — about a half mile — of an airport where leaded gas is used have higher blood lead levels than normal according to a 2011 Duke University study.

“Everybody acknowledges and recognizes that [using leaded gas for airplanes] must end, but nobody is yet taken the initiative [to end it],” Webber said.

A decade of concern

When Webber first raised concerns about leaded fuel at the airport over 10 years ago, the airport said to wait. A solution was close.

A decade later, leaded gas is still the primary gas used for small, gas-powered aircraft.

At the June 21 Port of Bellingham commissioners meeting, Bellingham International Airport operations manager Aaron Collins and Webber discussed the purpose and cost of the complaints, as well as the danger of leaded fuel and potential solutions to the problem.

In 2021, over 35,000 planes departed from the airport, Collins said. Fewer than 1% these airplanes flew over the Cliffside neighborhood.

At the Port of Bellingham meeting, Commissioner Ken Bell recommended testing for lead in the Cliffside neighborhood to see how concentrations there compare to outside the airport’s flight zone.

Bert Webber has contacted local, state and federal agencies about the hazards resulting from airplanes using leaded fuel flying over residential neighborhoods — including Cliffside in Bellingham. (Image: Port of Bellingham June 21 meeting)

Webber and Dave Shull, an oceanographer and Western professor who lives in the Cliffside neighborhood, are planning a study to gather and test samples following EPA procedures. An intern from Western will be doing the sampling in September and the College of the Environment at Western will analyze the samples.

When the lead sampling is completed, Webber said that the results will be made public and sent to the Port of Bellingham.

‘Barking up the wrong tree’

Bell said that Webber is bringing his concerns to the wrong place, because neither the airport nor the Port of Bellingham has authority over rules about airplane fuel or flight paths.

“We control what happens on the ground, but the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] controls what happens in the air,” Bell said.

Bell said that Webber should be contacting the FAA or the EPA.

“The restriction on leaded gas in automobiles did not come from the transportation department or your local highway department, it came from the EPA,” Bell said. “[Webber’s] kind of barking up the wrong tree.”

Webber said he has tried to contact multiple state-level and federal agencies including the FAA about his concerns, but none have responded yet.

Different fuel, different flight paths

Webber said that alternative fuels have been developed and that many small planes would be able to switch over. He’s said he’s baffled by the resistance to change.

According to the FAA, jet aircraft and turbine-powered, propeller aircraft do not use leaded aviation gas, or avgas, but instead use fuels very similar to kerosene, which provides higher octane performance. Most recently, major airlines such as Alaska Air, United Airlines, Jet Blue and others have used biofuels for their commercial flights.

Currently, the FAA requires planes with reciprocating, or piston, engines — about 190,000 nationwide— to use a type of leaded gas called 100 low-lead, Collins said. 100LL gas is also required for planes flown commercially, said Jason Douglass, owner of San Juan Airlines

“We cannot legally, or practically, use any other type of fuel,” Douglass said in an email.

Switching fuels has many legal and logistical challenges. Even if a new fuel is safe and effective for flight, it may only work for certain engine types or at certain altitudes, said Douglass.

“Finding a suitable substitute [to 100LL] that meets all the requirements is not a simple endeavor,” Douglass said.

The FAA is working with the fuel industry and has committed to completely eliminating the use of 100 low-lead gas nationwide by 2030, Collins said.

Until then, communities routinely flown over by airplanes will continue to be exposed to lead unless other steps are taken.

Lead, present and historic

People have been exposed to lead more or less depending on where they’ve lived or worked.

Workers and residents can inhale lead from aircraft exhaust or from lead deposited on soil, from spills and vapors, and from contact, according to a congressionally mandated report done by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 

When emitted from aircraft exhaust, lead can be inhaled by people living near and working at airports. Lead exposures also can occur from exhaust deposited on soil and other surfaces, from spills and vapor emitted during refueling, and contact with residue left on aircraft engines and other components

Cliffside flyover

Pilots usually fly above the Cliffside neighborhood because they are told to by the flight tower for safety reasons or because they aren’t aware of the airport’s voluntary noise abatement procedures, which includes the request to avoid flying over residential areas whenever possible, Collins said. Each time the airport receives a complaint about a plane, they send a letter to the plane’s owners as a reminder of the voluntary noise abatement procedures.

The process of logging the complaints and sending letters costs the airport around $40 of staff time per complaint, Collins said. The complaints from the Cliffside neighborhood added up to about $14,000.

This year, the airport started using a new flight-tracking system to save on staff time and costs. The system uses virtual fences, called geofences, around specific areas including the Cliffside neighborhood, Collins said. When aircraft cross the virtual fence, the airport is notified, allowin g them to gather better data on airplanes flying over areas to be avoided.

The airport has also modified their voluntary noise abatement procedures to explicitly ask pilots to fly straight out to the shoreline before turning and to avoid flying over the Cliffside neighborhood, Collins said. The port has also met with the local aviation community and installed signs.

“There is signage at the entrance to the runway on both ends,” Douglass said.

Even with all the efforts being made, Webber said that many pilots still fly over the neighborhood.

The airport can encourage and educate pilots, but at the end of the day, they cannot enforce any flight routes any more than they can make pilots use unleaded gas. Making either change will require intervention from FAA or EPA.

“Until then … planes are going to go up and overhead every day and drop little lead packages on the residential area of Cliffside,” Webber said.

— Reported by Sadie Fick

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