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George Braly, co-founder of General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI) and Chris D’Acosta, the CEO of Swift Fuels, both testified at a July 28 hearing of the members of the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on the environment. The hearing was called to address bipartisan “outrage” over decades of delay in phasing out leaded aviation gasoline, the sole remaining source of lead contamination among operators of internal combustion engines in the transportation sector. GAMI and Swift both have developed candidates for replacing 100 low lead (100LL) fuel with lead-free substitutes, but have faced regulatory headwinds that have stalled approvals.

Committee member Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat whose district is not far from Flint, where the water supply was famously contaminated with lead a few years ago, said of leaded aviation fuel, “This is a wakeup call. When planes from these airports fly over our communities, they are crop-dusting our neighborhoods with lead-poisoned air.”

Also testifying at the hearing was Cindy Chavez, commissioner of Santa Clara County, California, which recently became the first local government to eliminate refueling with 100LL, prohibiting its distribution on municipally owned Reid-Hillview Airport. While a 2020 study commissioned by Santa Clara County in 2020 found “a clear link” between lead exposure and proximity to the airport, a news story published by San Jose Spotlight.com shortly after the study was released reported that, of the 17,000 children under 18 examined who lived within one and a half miles of the airport, 1.7 percent showed lead levels calling for “further testing and observation,” according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is between 1.5 percent and 2.6 percent depending on age, according to statistics.

“The levels are also similar to neighboring counties,” wrote reporter Vicente Vera. “North of Santa Clara County, 1.5 percent of Alameda County children were found to have elevated blood levels, while approximately 2 percent of Santa Cruz County children showed elevated lead levels, based on data collected in 2018 by nonprofit research organization Population Reference Bureau.” Subsequent studies of ground samples also failed to reveal elevated levels of lead within the confines of Reid-Hillview Airport. That study was originally reported by the San Jose Mercury News.

Representatives from the FAA and EPA did not participate in the subcommittee hearing, with member legislators referring to their absence as “unconscionable.” The EPA has scheduled a draft of an “endangerment finding” on leaded aviation gasoline for publication in October. A final version of the draft is expected a year later, with action on the finding anticipated to take up to eight years. The FAA did express commitment to a 2030 deadline to bring unleaded aviation gasoline online and plans to increase funding for the effort to $12 million (from $6 million) for the next fiscal year.

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