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Oil companies polluting with leaded plane fuel, group says

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An environmental watchdog group is pursuing legal action against major oil companies that sell aviation fuel it says is responsible for lead pollution in the air and drinking water sources around California airports.

The Center for Environmental Health sent notices of violation Monday to AvFuel, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, as well as 38 airport-based suppliers of leaded aviation gasoline. The notices charge the companies with violating Proposition 65, California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.

Proposition 65, passed in 1986, prohibits businesses from knowingly discharging significant amounts of about 800 chemicals – including lead – into drinking water sources and requires them to warn Californians about exposure to such toxins.

"The oil and aviation industries need to know Californians will not tolerate lead pollution that threatens our health and healthy environments," Michael Green, executive director of the center, said in a statement. "We expect the industries to take immediate action to eliminate pollution that endangers children and families who live, work and play near airports across the state."

The violation notices name companies that sell and supply fuel at 25 airports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says have the highest lead emissions in California. They include major and municipal airports, such as the Long Beach Airport (Daugherty Field), John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Los Angeles International Airport, Oakland International Airport, Palo Alto Airport, Van Nuys Airport, and Gillespie Field in San Diego.

The center threatens to sue the companies unless they agree to stop selling and using leaded aviation fuel, clean the lead from drinking water sources and pay a civil penalty. The companies must also warn individuals who live in or pass through areas by the airport of potential lead exposure.

Chevron, based in San Ramon, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. A BP spokesman said he was not familiar with the violation notice.

Leaded aviation fuel, which boosts fuel octane, is used by piston-engine aircraft – generally small planes classified for instructional flying, general aviation and air taxis; it is not used by commercial airplanes. There are nearly 20,000 airports nationwide where leaded aviation gas is used. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 550 tons of lead was used to make aviation fuel in 2008.

Airplanes using leaded aviation gas emit the toxin as they take off and land at airports. People can then be exposed by breathing in or touching lead-tainted dust particles; lead can also deposit directly into drinking water sources or pass into groundwater.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system, brain, kidneys and reproductive system. There is no safe level of exposure, and children are particularly vulnerable to the heavy metal.

The notices of violation come five years after another environmental group, Friends of the Earth, petitioned the EPA to phase out lead in aviation fuel. The EPA responded last year by requesting comments on the issue; it received hundreds of responses.

Environmental groups and several cities – including Montebello, Temple City, Downey, South El Monte, Signal Hill and Arcadia – have urged the EPA to act on what it already knows about public health hazards associated with leaded aviation fuel. Aviation industry groups, the Department of Defense and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, among others, have opposed any action that would eliminate leaded aviation fuel, arguing that viable alternatives do not exist or would be costly and take years to implement.

"Without a substitute fuel, such a rule would turn thousands of piston-engine aircraft in Alaska into scrap, render billions of dollars invested over decades in airport infrastructure useless, devastate our economy, destroy thousands of jobs and strand hundreds of Alaskan communities and their residents. It would truly be a disaster," Parnell wrote to the EPA last year.

The EPA must now determine whether aircraft lead emissions from gasoline endanger public health. Critics say the EPA is taking too long and evidence that leaded aviation fuel endangers public health is clear.

In a report last year, the EPA noted that lead emissions from leaded aviation fuel comprise about half of all lead emitted to the air nationwide. It also said lead concentrations in air increase with proximity to airports where piston-engine aircraft operate, and that about 16 million people lived within a kilometer of such facilities.

"It has just been too long. Everything EPA has put out has said this is a problem for public health and the environment," said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels project director at Friends of the Earth, which welcomed the center's legal action. "There's just going to have to be a change, because the impacts of lead are there, and it's just unacceptable. …Hopefully this will push them to make change."

 

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