Our Unsustainable Secret: Leaded Fuel and City-Owned Fuel Tanks at Santa Monica

UPDATE, 30 MAR 2022:Elected officials in Santa Monica continue to be paralyzed and unable to do the right thing: discontinue leasing out their old tanks for leaded avgas and jet fuel sales, tanks that are decaying and well past their prime. They fear a lawsuit, and the City Attorney is only adding to their fears, by failing to identify who might file, at what venue, and citing what laws or regulations. Lacking any legitimate basis for a lawsuit, the Council is effectively being bullied into paralysis.
Here are two recent items: a letter to the editor by Joseph Schmitz, and a Facebook Post by Charles Blum.

Here’s an excellent OpEd by Alan Levenson, a resident of Sunset Park, printed in the Santa Monica Lookout. His concerns are about toxic lead, still in the aviation fuel used by recreational pilots in small planes, a situation that persists in no small part because FAA resists changes, and because local elected officials are often too intimidated by FAA to lead and serve. This is a national problem, too; there are dozens of posts under the category ‘LeadedAvGas‘. Read on…

We are all aware of the controversial airport that sits behind a fenced area in the southeast corner of Santa Monica. We have heard of the noise problems, the safety problems and the pollution. We know we were promised a great park.

What most have not heard much, if anything, about is the lead. The same lead that has been banned in auto gasoline, paint and toys is used in aviation fuel.

The leaded fuel is burned by most of the small planes that take off and buzz around over neighborhoods. The lead comes out in the exhaust and falls on people, homes, and schools below; it drops like lead at the rate of two grams per gallon. The City need not sell aviation fuel. Storing and supplying fuel is not our responsibility, and it is definitely not a sustainable business.

What most do not know is the City owns six underground tanks, three of which are 36 years old. That’s old for an underground tank; old even when not in earthquake county. The tanks sit above our aquifer; the same aquifer that has already been fouled in the past by Douglas Aircraft and leaking tanks from gas stations in years gone by. The same aquifer that supplies drinking water. Sure, the tanks are periodically checked, but accidents and failures happen.

The City is voluntarily storing and selling a known toxin. Lead has been proven to be unsafe at any level. It has been found in the blood of children around a similar airport, Reid Hillview, in San Jose, CA, at the same levels found in the children of Flint Michigan. A recent air quality study found elevated lead levels in the air around our airport and declared the airport to be the only source of airborne lead in the area.

Last November 2021 Councilmembers Brock and de la Torre proposed the City staff divest from the storage and sale of leaded fuel and the council unanimously agreed (“Santa Monica Could Join in Call for Ban on Leaded Aviation Fuel,” November 5, 2021).

Our Airport Commission also agreed. Even though we are not required to do so, the City staff has recently undertaken a project to sell unleaded fuel from one of our tanks, but our staff has not charted a known course of action to stop the sale or storage of lead in the second and older 12,000-gallon tank.

The City Attorney claims shutting out of the second tank might cause a problem in the future with the FAA or the aviators. Yet we know that in the real and now present that lead is coming out of Santa Monica Airport, exposure to lead reduces the IQ in children, and its effects are permanent.

Lead is a clear and present danger. We know the tanks sit above our aquifer. Lead is the elephant in the room and in our tanks, and that elephant must be shown the door. Santa Monica does not have to participate in this dirty business that should have ended decades ago as it was with cars, paints and toys.

Pilots and aviation businesses alike claim they too would like to get the lead out of aviation fuel. Yet while leaded fuel is available, they continue to use it. We know lead is bad. Even a little lead is bad. No lead is good. Not in our water, our air, our soil or our bodies.

No one is putting a gun to anyone’s head to sell and store leaded fuel at Santa Monica Airport.

It’s not green, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not defensible. In fact, after being asked for a clear explanation as to why we cannot get out of the fuel business we were not shown a convincing answer. We are talking lead, not bacon wrapped hot dogs on the pier. You cannot refuse or hide from airborne lead. Aviation fuel is the serious stuff of industry. Toxic to living things.

Our FAA obligations do not allow the City to ban the total use or sale of leaded fuel at the airport, but in no place do they clearly state the City must provide tanks or the City must sell fuel. It is time to retire our old tanks and get out of the leaded fuel business. It makes sense to get out of the aviation fuel business altogether.

If an aviation business wants to bring in their own newer safe and up-to-code tanks, then let them bear the costs, as well as the responsibility for the harm they are causing to those on the ground.

There comes a time to stand up for what is clearly right and reject what is not. It is wrong for a responsible and sustainable city to support and participate in the sale and storage of lead and any toxic fuels. There is no safe level of lead in our water or our air. 

We have an obligation to keep the airport open until 2029. We have no obligation to store and sell fuel until then. 

Please get out of the fuel business. Do it for the kids.

Santa Monica: The Quest for Local Control Continues

The last time the City of Santa Monica accepted FAA grant monies was in 1994. But, airport grants are not just for subsidizing the few who use the airport; they are also for imposing restrictions on the airport sponsor (in this case, the City of Santa Monica), so as to perpetuate the airport and also to compel airports to become dependent on more FAA grants. The list of restrictions, called ‘Grant Assurances’, is extensive. One of them, Grant Assurance 22, comes up time and again, used by FAA and aviation interests to confound airport sponsors and activists seeking balance or closure. 

By definition, Grant Assurances remain valid for 20 years; thus, 20-years after a grant is accepted, if an airport sponsor accepts no grants for those twenty years, they have finally earned their freedom from grant-slavery, come clean, and can theoretically regain local control of their local airport. This is what the people of Santa Monica aspired to do eight years ago, in 2014.

The Santa Monica Airport is jammed up against houses and, in fact, the spacing is so deficient residents have had lawn furniture overturned by the blast behind taxiing jets. The lead from leaded aviation fuel continues to be deposited on area homes, because FAA and the aviation industry have stonewalled the replacement of leaded aviation fuel. Indeed, in the 25-years since lead was removed from all U.S. automotive gas stations, there have been thousands of new engines built, put into new small recreational airplane designs, all centered on the consumption of leaded aviation fuel.

Activists have been fighting for health and quality of life for many decades, so it is not surprising that, when the City of Santa Monica finished their last grant obligations in 2014, a ballot measure was added to the November election seeking local control and conversion of the property to a park. The aviation lobbyists spent lots (estimates were 8-times the spending by Local Control proponents,) but they lost. The majority spoke and voter empowerment made it look like residents were going to see a park soon. It was headed that way until late January 2017, when a few City officials, fearful of dragged out legal challenges and an ongoing lack of FAA cooperation, caved to FAA’s pressure and ‘settled’ with a Consent Decree that made airport closure arguably a lot less likely.

The fight goes on. City Council met just last Tuesday, and was given a 94-page packet by City Manager David White, ‘Update on Dispensing Unleaded Fuel at SMO’. They also received 72-pages of citizen comments, all advocating for an end to leaded fuel sales, and preferring a full closure of the four underground fuel storage tanks the City owns. Included was this 3-page PDF investigating the integrity of the fuel tanks.

So, What’s With ‘Grant Assurance 22’?

Grant Assurance 22 is ten pounds of ambiguity under the headline, ‘Economic Nondiscrimination’. It has nine listed elements. Three of them are:

Grant Assurance 22a states: “It will make the airport available as an airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical activities, including commercial aeronautical activities offering services to the public at the airport.”

Grant Assurance 22h states: “The sponsor may establish such reasonable, and not unjustly discriminatory, conditions to be met by all users of the airport as may be necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the airport.”

Grant Assurance 22i states: “The sponsor may prohibit or limit any given type, kind or class of aeronautical use of the airport if such action is necessary for the safe operation of the airport or necessary to serve the civil aviation needs of the public.”

So, while 22a seems to imply ANY aviation activity has to be allowed without discrimination and on reasonable terms, both 22h and 22i offer exceptions, allowing specific conditions and even outright prohibitions, as needed for safety and efficiency.

Would it be a ‘reasonable term’ to NOT allow lease of an underground tank past its designed age limit? Should FAA’s view of safety include protecting area residents from lead toxin exposures? Is FAA our friend or our enemy (with us or against us)? What kind of a regulatory agency is it that leans hard with its sole authority but lacks the heart to cooperate with communities impacted by its activities?  Is this the same agency that handed off regulatory action to Boeing for the deadly 737MAX fiasco, and the same agency that grounds all tiny drones in yards to protect manned aircraft (yet is now slowly repealing rules so drones can fly low over crowds of people)? Yup, this is FAA: the U.S. aviation ‘faux-regulator’ captured to serve aviation, and working to protect industry from problematic people.

Oddly, the City Attorney is hung up on Grant Assurance 22, acting and speaking uncomfortably to question its applicability. And, unfortunately, the City Manager appears to be parroting the statements by the City Attorney. As a result, the City’s residents are being subjected to an unsafe, unhealthy perpetuation of aviation privilege that benefits a tiny elite. But these City officials are missing an important reality, so fearful they are of FAA. Both of them should ponder this: if they shut down all the tanks and an aviation lobbyist files a Part 16 complaint (against the City, claiming they are not compliant with grant assurances), their biggest penalty will be placement on the ‘Airport Noncompliance List’ and loss of grant eligibility… neither of which matter, for an airport set to close later this decade.

So, let’s close down the underground tanks. And, thank you, City of Santa Monica, for standing up to the FAA bully.

“This is obviously deliberate harassment, but the pilots tell me they can do whatever they want”

These are the words of the supervisor of the Town of Austerlitz, NY, summing up the situation — mostly recreational flyers and student pilots, flying out of Great Barrington airport [KGBR] in southwest Massachusetts, and polluting noise and toxic lead upon residents across the state line, in New York.

Incredibly, this is the case at many airports across the nation. Why? Because FAA leadership sees its role as serving excessive privilege to pilots, not serving the whole nation. And, too often, elected officials are too beholden to campaign contributions, which continue to generously come from aviation industry players, lobbyists, and pilots. So, the problems persist. Reforms are long overdue.

View the article at TheNation.com, or click here to view an aiRchive copy (2page PDF).

“Lead makes the mind give way.”

So, too, do the intense politics and greed associated with the aviation industry. Even more so when industry ‘collaborates’ with faux-regulators like FAA, to spew out mountains of GWBS (a new acronym, standing for ‘greenwash BS’). But, we all endure; we learn, we share, we activate, we demand change.

There is a lot happening this summer. Not just the continued drive for more over-expansion at hub airports worldwide, but also as regards smaller airports. Miki Barnes at Oregon Aviation Watch has been one of the biggest activists in the U.S., seeking changes at FAA, Port of Portland, and the Hillsboro Airport [KHIO]. OAW recently sent out an email about the ongoing health impacts associated with lead, which remains in the common aviation fuel ‘100LL’ (the LL stands for ‘low lead’). Miki notes:

“The aviation industry is the largest source of airborne lead pollution in the country. The Port of Portland owned and operated Hillsboro Airport (HIO) is a prime example. The majority of the users of this facility are student pilots recruited from overseas and out of state to engage in flight training over the local community.”

So, at Hillsboro, an airport authority (PoP) was created long ago and collects local taxes, but PoP operates with no obligation towards accountability and transparency; furthermore, PoP has predictably evolved into a servant for industry, helping to gin up industry profits by blocking citizens seeking to moderate aviation impacts while also ignoring growing citizen concerns.

Two copies are aiRchived here:

Santa Monica Airport: Last Chance to Comment on Minimum Standards

Airport officials at Santa Monica are in the process of creating ‘Minimum Standards for Commercial Aeronautical Service Providers. These standards can ensure that all potential operators are fairly treated when and if the airport authority denies certain operations. Last week, Airport Director Stelios Makrides issued a statement that the deadline for comments has been extended to June 21st. (click here for an archived copy)

Santa Monica is a very unique airport. It should have been allowed to close down years ago, but FAA has obstructed the will of the local community, solely to protect aviation interests who insist on using this deficient airport facility. How is it deficient? Just take a look at the satellite images and airport map, and note how closely the nearby homes and yards stand, relative to the runway. At Santa Monica, people have had their lawn furniture blown over by the blast from departing jets; REALLY!!

The runway was shortened last year, but now the City is failing to impose needed standards that block unsafe operations by jets and commercial operators. Aviation money appears to be impeding their judgment.

Santa Monica is also notable as an airport where FAA lawyers managed to convince the local elected officials to ‘settle’ legal differences with an inexplicable agreement to extend the life of the airport. Money talks, and rumor has it the elected officials were tired of spending so much money on legal services, trying to exercise their rights against FAA’s industry-serving will. You got it: our money, collected by FAA from we the taxpayers, and spent as FAA sees fit, is arbitrarily used to impede meaningful LOCAL CONTROL by compelling our own elected officials to use our money (local taxes, this time) to fight FAA in the courts.

Below is a copy of a recent letter by Gavin Scott, posted at NoJetsSMO. He summarizes what he observed at the June 5th Airport Commissioner’s Meeting. He also advocates – strongly – for people to submit their own comments right away, before the chance is gone.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

FEB 25-27: Aviation Noise & Emissions Symposium, at Long Beach, CA

Every year, industry representatives (including FAA and the lobbyists, of course!) meet at around this time, for the ‘Aviation Noise & Emissions Symposium’. The event is traditionally held in the Palm Springs area, but is at Long Beach this year.

On the following page, aiReform has produced a table listing the attendees as listed at the event website. An effort has been made to identify which attendees are there on behalf of their local impacted airport, as well as to identify the industry players, lobbyists, and regulators. It appears that more than half of attendees are industry/regulatory.

Some of the attendees are actual activists who have fought against growing impacts under FAA’s defective NextGen program, or caused by excessive aviation operations. Other attendees include local citizens who may or may not care much, but were selected by the airport authority and/or local political officials, to fill a spot in an oversight group. It might be constructive if attendees and/or readers of this Post will submit further information, to clarify who the real hard-working activists are. Likewise, it would be interesting to learn more about the many companies and regulatory officials in attendance. For example, Lourdes Maurice is listed representing a company; formerly, she was a high-ranking FAA official, in charge of environmental issues. This appears to be yet another example of FAA-industry revolving doors.

Lastly, it would be valuable to hear from the activist-participants. Did they find this event helpful and informative, or did they instead feel it was just a dog-and-pony-show aimed at gaining their support of further aviation growth? Were the presenters sincerely interested in managing and reducing impacts, or just yes-men, passing along the industry sales pitches?

Santa Monica’s Airport Subsidies, & the ‘Draft Minimum Standards for Commercial Operations’

This past week, numerous local citizens met with city airport officials, to discuss the DRAFT Minimum Standards for Commercial Aeronautical Services. This 41-page document (archived here) may be well worth reading … not just for those who fear continued air charter operations at the shortened KSMO runway, but also for people at other U.S. airports, seeking to clarify who is to be held accountable for the airport impacts.

Some of the content is mere boilerplate, but other details make it clear that the two key airport regulatory parties (FAA and airport authorities) both tend to ignore area residents while serving only commercial operators. And how is this done? Well, if and when a citizen raises a concern, the airport regulatory party is quick to pretend they are not accountable while also directing all concerned citizens ‘to the other party’. The result is regulatory failure; where safety and environment demand real and timely accountability, instead we find an accountability vacuum.

At Santa Monica, the impacts continue. Although the runway was substantially shortened, jets and charter operations still fly. Area residents remain fearful that the City will allow – or even encourage – the development of increased air charter operations.

‘Minimum standards’ should exist, especially as related to safety and environmental impact. Given how marginally unsafe the shortened runway is for larger, fuel-laden commercial flights, it is absolutely appropriate for the city to refine their minimum standards in a way that shuts down commercial charter operations. But, will they do so?

Submitting suggestions or comments on this Draft

Ben Wang, at the ‘SMO Future’ Facebook group, submitted a table with his suggestions (click here to view the aiReform archived copy).

Readers who wish to may submit their own suggestions. The two key airport officials to contact are:

Something Else to Think About: Who pays for these airport officials?

Mr. Markos is Airport Manager, a position he has held since 2013 (per this news release). After a quick online search, it was not yet clear what his annual salary is. But, that same search revealed that Ms. Lowenthal, as the Senior Advisor to the City Manager on Airport Affairs, earns a $162,036 annual salary. (click here to view the City’s 9/28/2017 press release)

Here’s something to think about. In good form, to justify a high salary, the city’s press release proceeded to identify Ms. Suwenthal’s substantial background, both educationally and professionally. But, that point aside, if senior assistants earn this large a salary, it suggests that the costs to manage KSMO, which frankly caters to just a small group of charter operators, are quite substantial. And these costs have to be born by someone.

These high costs beg a few more critical questions:

  1. what exactly is the full extent of city subsidy for this airport?
  2. if the city subsidies ended, would area residents finally obtain relief from air pollutant, noise, and safety impacts, especially those caused by charter operators and leaded-fuel local flights? In other words, is this subsidy pattern actually perpetuating impacts that destroy health and residential quality of life?
  3. if the city continues the pattern of impact upon nearby residents (both in Santa Monica and in adjacent neighborhoods, such as West LA), where is the money coming from to pay these subsidies?

Is Common Sense Creeping Back at Santa Monica?

Good to see that, after a year of horrible missteps, the City of Santa Monica appears to be setting up an environmental study, to be done during the 10-day airport closure in mid-December. Here is an archived copy of the news article (or click here to view the source article):

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

In the past, assessments done during airport closures have shown dramatic air quality improvements, suggesting clearly that local resident concerns go WAY BEYOND ‘annoyance’ (that was the word used by FAA’s community liaison person, in dismissing concerns by long-time residents of western Long Island). And, Marty Rubin looks to be wise to reserve judgment; too often, these studies get hijacked and watered down, so let’s hope Paulson is involved and credible data is collected.

Santa Monica Update: Air Quality Study Needed, During Runway Closures

In the U.S., one of our greatest advocates for resolving aviation impacts is Marty Rubin. Marty has been fighting the right fight for decades now, against a city (Santa Monica) whose elected officials appear to be corrupt to no end (…well, most of them; a few have been great!). His website, CRAAP, recently forwarded the posting below, which is a blogpost by staff at Mike Bonin’s website.

For those not in the LA area, here’s the deal: this airport is run by the City of Santa Monica, but has HUGE impacts upon people who reside in homes outside the City’s boundaries … in old and very established residential communities like West LA. In a just world, a higher level regulator, such as FAA, would guard against gains for some with uncompensated losses for others. But, here in West LA, FAA is failing their role. In these neighborhoods, even beautiful homes are subjected to aviation fumes and jet blast, with homeowner’s having no evident right to fix these impacts. Why? Because of FAA’s refusal to serve EVERYONE, not just the aviation industry! But, then again, this is what we expect from a captured regulator.

Here is a copy of the blog and Councilmember Bonin’s letter to the Santa Monica City Council. (click here to view the source)

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.


See also:

City of Santa Monica is Failing to Live Up to Consent Decree Claims and Promises

Alan Levenson has created an analysis, showing how the City of Santa Monica is failing what they promised, nearly 5-months ago. Here is a copy:

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

The largest failure identified by Alan is that nothing substantial has happened, despite the fact that ‘immediate’ action was repeatedly promised. But, there is another large failure, and even more at the heart of safety and health impacts: the Consent Decree package reveals City is not only aware that the runway violates FAA safety design standards, but the City and FAA are both perpetuating these violations until at least 2029!

To illustrate the first failure, see this copy of the City’s glowing press release, when they announced the Consent Decree on January 28th (note, too, no citizens had yet been shown any of the Consent Decree documents … that was days later). Immediate? Hardly. Trust is not earned by spending five months and getting nothing done.

On the second point, City officials want everyone to believe that this Consent Decree assures FAA runway safety standards will now be met, but this assertion appears to be a bald-faced lie. For example, see the graphic at page 20 of the 63-page Consent Decree package. This was an Airport Layout Plan (ALP), created in 1991. At the time, it was believed that more jets would use KSMO, so the ALP depicted two Runway Protection Zones (RPZs): the existing RPZ, and an expanded future RPZ. The dimensions of the RPZ trapezoid are based on aircraft performance, specifically speed and wingspan. The higher performing jets would require a longer and wider trapezoid. Unfortunately, City submitted a fuzzy and mostly illegible ALP to the Consent Decree package (so, only people with experience studying ALPs can recognize what is depicted).

To correct for City’s fuzzy ALP, here’s a sample RPZ from another airport, with a lot less jet traffic:

kuao-201205-rpz-rwy-17-on-satview-w-dimensions-showing-trees-later-removed

The green trapezoid delineates an RPZ at the north end of the Aurora Airport, near Portland, OR. This is a minimally-sized RPZ for an airport with just a few jets; the ends measure 500ft and 1010ft, and the trapezoid is 1700ft long. Note that there are no obstructions in the trapezoid, to comply with an FAA safety standard.

One of the key facts that emerged with the Consent Decree was this: both FAA and City of Santa Monica have knowingly allowed not just ‘a few’ houses and yards inside the RPZ, they have allowed fully developed residential neighborhoods! And it appears that this is not happening ANYWHERE ELSE in the United States! Furthermore, both FAA and City of Santa Monica are OK with perpetuating this safety risk (and the substantial health impacts) for 12 more years. Nothing has been done to mitigate risks and impacts upon residents actually living (and breathing, and sleeping) within either the smaller RPZ or the expanded RPZ. And, in the meantime, not only are jets increasing at KSMO, but FAA has even pretended to not notice, while scheduled commercial operations were being marketed online.

So, City of Santa Monica finally came up with a plan to shorten the runway. Are the RPZs now clear of homes, yards and other obstructions? No, there are still numerous homes in the shortened runway RPZ, too. Here is a current satellite image showing the problem on the northeast end of the airport:

A 1,700ft circle (the RPZ length used for lesser airports) has been added. The image indicates that dozens of homes (west of Westgate Ave and north of National Boulevard) remain within the new proposed RPZ.

And this does not even reflect the pollution impacts and safety risks that remain to the east of Westgate Ave, especially for the higher performance air charter flights laden with more fuel.

Clearly, Rick Cole and Ted Winterer at the City of Santa Monica need to show us graphically, and in the clearest terms:

  • precisely where are the RPZ boundaries?
  • are the dimensions appropriate to the size and scale of commercially operating aircraft at KSMO?
  • and, can you confirm that no houses are within the KSMO RPZs?

See also: