Reid-Hillview Airport switching to unleaded fuel after years of complaints

Representatives from the local aviation community will announce Monday that planes at Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose will run on unleaded fuel, marking a victory for environmental and community groups that have complained for years about the dangers of leaded fuel.

Officials from the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, a nonprofit committed to keeping Reid-Hillview open, will make the official announcement Monday morning at the airport. The group said unleaded fuel will be introduced for the airport's general aviation aircraft.

"After several years of calling on Santa Clara County to allow for it, the implementation of unleaded fuel at Reid-Hillview Airport will begin this coming week," they said in a statement.

The announcement comes amid a fight over the future of the 82-year-old East San Jose airport, as a growing number of officials demand its closure citing exposure to unsafe lead levels from planes, safety concerns, noise and hopes that the land could be better used for much-needed affordable housing. Opponents, however, say the airport serves as a critical hub for smaller planes and emergency operations--something that the county's fire department denied earlier this month.

"We will be providing important updates on the availability of unleaded aviation gasoline at Reid-Hillview Airport, and several other Bay Area airports as well," John McGowan, Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation spokesperson and board member, told San Jose Spotlight. McGowan is a recreational pilot who has fought to keep Reid-Hillview open.

A plane takes off from Reid-Hillview Airport. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

A study commissioned by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently revealed that some children who live within 1.5 miles of the airport have elevated blood lead levels.

But according to a San Jose Spotlight analysis, the elevated blood lead  levels found in the local study are consistent with the state average and neighboring counties. Out of 17,000 blood samples, only 1.7 percent show lead levels that call for further testing. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is 1.5 percent. Small amounts of lead can still deteriorate cognitive functions despite the CDC's threshold.

Still, the numbers have caused alarm for county officials, including Supervisor Cindy Chavez who has aimed to close the airport for years. Chavez says closing the airport is an environmental justice issue given the airport's location in a neighborhood of approximately 52,000 people, with some of the highest concentrations of Latinos and low-income people in the city. According to the county, there are 21 schools and childcare centers near the airport.

"This is a public health issue, it's an environmental justice issue and it's an equity issue," Chavez said earlier this month.

Supervisors voted in November to begin the planning process for closing the airport and repurposing the land. They also voted to explore the possibility of consolidating Reid-Hillview's aviation with the San Martin Airport, about 23 miles southeast of Reid-Hillview just outside of Gilroy.

The Federal Aviation Administration has studied leaded fuel and its link to cancer since at least 2010. Leaded fuel prevents damaging engine knock, or detonation, which can result in sudden engine failure.

Currently, Swift Fuels out of Indiana is the only company that offers commercially available unleaded aviation gasoline in the U.S. Shipping could cause some logistical concerns.

McGowan declined to elaborate on how or when the switch to unleaded fuel will occur. His group is holding a news conference on Monday to release more details about their plan.

Editors Note: This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight.