Lead poisoning fears prompt San Diego to prioritize adding unleaded fuel to city airports


Growing pressure from community leaders in Clairemont and Serra Mesa has prompted San Diego officials to prioritize adding unleaded fuel tanks to Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa and Brown Field in Otay Mesa.

Residents say children are vulnerable to lead poisoning and negative cognitive impacts if they live or attend school under the flight paths of these two municipal airports.

For three years, residents have been pressuring the city to reduce the number of small planes using lead at both airports.

Lead has been illegal in automotive fuels and paints since the 1970s due to its toxicity.

Lead is still permitted in aviation gas used by small aircraft, but most of these aircraft can run on unleaded fuel if available. Residents want the city to make this option available to pilots as soon as possible.

In 2019, city officials expressed reluctance to get involved in what they described as a private matter. But this week, they turned the tide and said unleaded fuel tanks would be installed as soon as possible at both airports.

“City staff are actively working with the Federal Aviation Administration, unleaded fuel vendors, fuel tank vendors, airport companies, and airport users to identify the most efficient and effective way to make unleaded aviation fuel available at our municipal airports, ”said Penny Maus, director of the city’s Department of Property and Airport Management.

Quentin Yates, one of the leaders of a group of residents known as the Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, said Thursday that Maus’ announcement was good news.

“I was very encouraged – well,” he said. “Our biggest problem has been raising awareness. “

Maus’s announcement came on Wednesday when discussing a possible 2022 ballot measure that residents are pursuing to allow city voters to decide the matter.

The city council’s rules committee, which is considering possible voting measures, said it would support such a measure if city staff did not move quickly on adding unleaded fuel tanks.

Council member Raul Campillo said it would be less risky and take less time for city officials to add the tanks without voting measures.

Council member Stephen Whitburn said a reason for optimism was Mayor Todd Gloria and five new council members – including Whitburn and Campillo – who took charge of the town last December.

“I cannot speak of the actions or inaction of other administrations, but this administration and this council are working on it and I have confidence,” he said.

Maus said the path might not be easy.

“This is a very complex issue with many regulators involved, but we are committed to doing due diligence and moving forward as quickly as possible,” she said.

Maus said she would recommend including $ 200,000 for unleaded tanks in the 2023 budget, which the board is expected to pass next June.

Jorge Rubio, deputy director of the city’s real estate and airport agency, said he was in negotiations with a company that operates part of Montgomery Field to allow the installation of a lead-free tank in an ideal open space .

The community leaders’ campaign is not targeting San Diego International Airport because the jets, which have turbine engines, use a different type of fuel than small planes, which have piston engines. Jets use a combination

Planes with piston engines typically use leaded fuel, but about 80% of them could run on unleaded fuel if the octane rating is high enough, officials said.

Yates said his group would agree to the city allowing planes that must use leaded fuel to continue using it.

He said the city’s overthrow was refreshing of course, but added that it was frustrating to see around 3 tonnes of leaded fuel dumped in neighborhoods across the city over the past three years.

He said it’s confusing why people react aggressively when lead is in water taps, but not when planes spit it out over neighborhoods.

One reason could be that the amount of lead emissions at both airports is much less than what the federal government considers significant.

City documents before the pandemic indicate that flight operations at Montgomery-Gibbs emit 1.4 metric tons of toxic lead each year, while operations at Brown Field emit more than half a metric ton each year. The federal standard for significant exposure to lead is 25 metric tonnes.

Prior to 2020, there were typically around 200,000 flights per year at Montgomery Field and around 90,000 per year at Brown Field.

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