Environmental Law Clinic Pushes for Federal Ban on Leaded Aviation Gasoline

Yesterday, advanced clinic student Sydney Speizman spoke on behalf of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic client County of Santa Clara at a public hearing before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) in support of long-awaited federal action to regulate lead emissions from aviation gasoline – the country’s last remaining leaded transportation fuel.

Twenty-five years after banning leaded automobile fuel, the EPA is finally taking measures to regulate the last remaining source of mobile lead emissions in the country: leaded aviation gasoline (known as “avgas”). Last fall, a national coalition of NGOs and public agencies, including the County of Santa Clara represented by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, petitioned the EPA to make a so-called endangerment finding for leaded avgas under Section 231 of the Clean Air Act – the first step to regulating harmful air pollution from aircraft. In response, the EPA published its proposed endangerment finding last month, which found overwhelming evidence that 1) lead air pollution endangers public health or welfare, and 2) lead emissions from combustion of leaded avgas by piston-engine aircraft cause or contribute to that damaging pollution. If this positive endangerment finding is finalized, the EPA must then propose and finalize standards to control lead pollution from aircraft as the second stage of its rulemaking.

The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic is representing the County of Santa Clara throughout this rulemaking to advocate for a nationwide ban on leaded avgas on a timeline that meets the urgency of the public health crisis and grave environmental injustice posed by the continued use of this poisonous fuel. Leaded avgas is the source of a staggering 70% of lead air pollution nationwide, posing severe health and developmental risks to communities living near general aviation airports and to airport workers. This public health crisis is also a grave environmental injustice – airport-adjacent communities are disproportionately low-income and/or communities of color, and many are already overburdened with other sources of lead exposure.

A County-commissioned study released last year, for instance, documented increases in blood lead levels in children living nearby Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose on par with, and even exceeding, the magnitude of increase observed at the height of the Flint Water Crisis. Like many airport-adjacent communities throughout the country, the community surrounding Reid-Hillview Airport that is most heavily impacted by lead air pollution is significantly lower-income than the County as a whole, with 97% also identifying as persons of color and nearly 80% speaking a language other than English at home. Following release of the study, the County took swift action to eliminate leaded avgas sales at County-owned airports and petitioned the EPA to regulate leaded avgas nationwide.

At yesterday’s public hearing before the EPA, Sydney highlighted the strong evidence supporting the EPA’s proposed finding, the direct and socialized costs of the EPA’s failure to regulate lead emissions, and the public health and environmental justice imperatives mandating a swift ban of leaded avgas nationwide. Sydney also underscored the need for  federal action, noting that because “the County cannot stop aircraft using leaded fuel from transiting through its airports, nor can it control fuel sales at other airports, coordinated and bold federal action is needed to solve this problem.”

Also speaking for the County in strong support of the proposed endangerment finding were Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos – who elaborated on the impacts of leaded avgas for communities living near Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose and the County’s actions to reduce lead exposure – and Dr. Bruce Lanphear – a professor at Simon Fraser University and an expert on lead poisoning who described the profound health harms of lead exposure, particularly to exposed children.  County speakers were joined by community members impacted by aircraft lead emissions and by NGOs from around the country advocating for this long-overdue regulation.