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).

FAA Investigates: Police Helicopter ‘Crashing’ of a Football Tailgate Party

Who’s idea was it, anyway, to use a helicopter to fly over tailgating crowds ‘to make crowd announcements’?

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

OK, let’s suppose a nearby nuclear reactor is melting down, say Three Mile Island (though I understand, yes, it is not actually near the stadium Lot 23 area for Penn State football games!). But, just to put this in perspective, would it be a good idea for a helicopter pilot with an announcement system to swoop down very low over a crowd to issue an urgent message aimed at triggering an immediate orderly evacuation? Well, yes and no. First, how likely is it the announcement will not be heard over the ‘whop whop’ roar of the helicopter? And, second, how smart is it to apply this level of intervention, this form of technology, to potentially trigger a stampede? If there is an urgent need for people to vacate an area, sending in a helicopter at tree-top level or even lower is like throwing gas onto a fire. Not a good idea.

Now, is it surprising that this pilot flew so low, endangering so many people? No, not at all. FAA’s regulations for Minimum Safe Altitude (officially known as FAR 91.119) are carefully worded so as to exempt helicopters from the ‘1,000-ft above’ requirement that all fixed wing aircraft have to comply with. Well, sort of. The ambiguity within FAR 91.119 creates a barn door wide enough to fly a helicopter through … or, at least, it creates opportunities for FAA to justify taking no enforcement actions. The key phrase within FAA 91.119 is this:

“(Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below) … an altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.”

Check out the videos online, by tailgaters at this Penn State incident. How was this helicopter going to safely execute an emergency landing without actually crushing or chopping people and ‘property’ below in the congested, open air assembly of tailgaters? And, when the impact causes fuel to burst out and ignite, how does the PA State Police mitigate the ‘undue hazards’ of being burnt to death?

Let’s put this in FAA’s perspective: aviation is good, people are dumb, and we, as the federal ‘regulator’ with sovereign authority for all things U.S. aviation, do everything we can to grow aviation commerce and allow even stupid aviation activities.

  • From FAA’s perspective, why not allow the use of helicopters swooping low and back-and-forth to herd wild horses or cattle … or PEOPLE?
  • From FAA’s perspective, why not ignore the obvious hazard and imprudence of using helicopters for drying cherries, or suspending enormous brush-trimming devices? Why not also ignore the ‘candy drops’ and ‘turkey drops’? After all, candy drops help sell aviation to kids, the same way turkey drops and heli-hunting sell aviation to, well, redneck yahoos … so, both are best ignored, right? [Check out this Heli-hunting video. with two shooters on the left side of a low-flying Robinson R44. Try to estimate the altitude, but try not to ponder too hard the possibility that any human or animal (a dog or livestock?) might be within the aerial hunt zone.]

  • From FAA’s perspective, why not pretend to care about safety – better yet, make ‘safety’ our most over-used word – by creating rules such as FAR 91.119 but carefully including enough ambiguity to ensure every errant pilot can walk away from enforcement – that is, so long as they are not killed by their own stupidity? Did you know: the FAR 91.119 language protects persons and property ‘ON THE SURFACE’, but the pilot (a person) and aircraft (a form of property) are NOT ‘on the surface’, and are therefore disposable?
  • From FAA’s perspective, why not perpetuate a convenient privilege for those people who choose aviation as their hobby or profession? Why not continue FAA’s ongoing failure to meaningfully investigate and enforce violations of FAR 91.119 and other FARs? After all, we wouldn’t want to dampen demand for flying, would we?

It amazes me that FAR 91.119 is so riddled with ambiguity, almost as much as it amazes me that FAA does not really give a damn about enforcing safe practices … at least not when they interfere with the expansion of air commerce. In this context, I suspect FAA will do nothing to correct the excesses that happened with the state police helicopter, at the Penn State tailgate last Saturday.

FAA investigates? We all have our doubts.

[KSMO]: A Video Collection of Speeches at a Protest in April 2007

The content and quality of presentation at this citizen protest is outstanding. The statements and the stories just scream out:

How can FAA and the Santa Monica Airport continue to do the damage being done, not just the noise but the serious health destruction, too?

This protest offers a great example for others, being impacted across the nation by an out-of-control FAA and aviation businesses. Perhaps viewing these will help you to become motivated to reclaim local control of your local airport … to serve the LOCAL COMMUNITY first, and to assure that the airport’s operations are properly balanced with the environment and local quality of life.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded. Click on the links within the PDF to view each video portion, uploaded to YouTube.

Skycatcher Failed to Catch On

Other Posts have pointed out how many aspects of U.S. aviation have been in decline for decades, yet are not talked about: TRACON operations, commercial flight operations, ASPM-77 airport operations, airline fuel consumption, the shrinking NAS, for example … all have seen substantial declines for nearly two decades. Now, here’s a similar Post, focused on General Aviation – the manufacture of small planes for recreation, small business use, etc.

In the latest sign of how far U.S. general aviation has fallen, Cessna has decided to destroy the unsold inventory of it’s model ‘Cessna 162 Skycatcher’. Within the details of this story, there is a lot to be seen about how the political system serves money and special interests, while impeding changes that would best serve everyone. All the posturing on Capitol Hill, the new laws to incentivize sales and prop up an industry in decline, the indifference as U.S. manufacturers moved production overseas to cheapen their labor costs, the false boosterism of how great aviation is for the economy … and yet it all came down to just a sad story about the recycling of some very expensive airplane pieces.

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

Aviation Should Serve People, Not Profits

Aside

Grand Canyon National Park:

“There are few places in this great land so

suited for contemplative recreation.”

The destructive noise impacts of aviation are many and varied: from FAA’s newly imposed concentrated NextGen routes, to circling skydive climbs, to helicopter flight schools, and more. Add to that list air tourism, even in places as sacred and beautiful as Grand Canyon. This 4-minute video is well worth watching.

(click on image to view video)

(click on image to view video)

Mora, MN: FAA Wasting Millions to Add a Crosswind Runway Through a Wetland & Wildlife Area

Here are some facts about one of the most egregious examples of FAA working to force an unneeded runway onto a local community – a case that even went all the way to the use of eminent domain to force landowners to sell their property:

  1. It is a common practice across the nation that FAA and the agents hired to develop and gain approval for airport improvements will repeatedly fudge the data, offering fictitious and unsupportable ‘estimates’ and projections. That has again happened in this case, for the Mora airport.KJMR.20160521.. crop of 'swans lifting off, crosswind RWY proposal area'
  2. FAA claims this airport averages 15,000 operations per year (20 landings per day), but FAA has no solid evidence to back this up. In fact, locals, including many pilots opposed to this proposal, believe the real activity level averages closer to 5 landings per day.
  3. This project would not even be contemplated if not for FAA offering an incentive in generous federal grants (derived mostly from airline passenger taxes) to enable local officials to look and feel productive.
  4. The proposed runway requires substantial grading and fill across an area of ponds and wetlands. This area is commonly inundated with thousands of geese, swans and other large birds.
  5. The wetlands are also a rare habitat for an endangered tree species, the Butternut. These trees will be destroyed during the grading, and future trees will be destroyed as part of a wildlife hazard management plan.
  6. There was an apparent conflict of interest in the last round of construction contracts at this airport. Historically, most of the FAA grants have been awarded to SEH Engineering, a firm that also handles many other contracts in Mora and other Minnesota communities. One of the SEH employees who most often negotiates plans with FAA and advises the city on those plans is a Mr. Joel Dresel. In late 2007, when the primary runway was extended another 800-feet to the current 4,800-ft length, the Mora City Council approved three payments totaling $1.5 Million; the recipient was ‘Dresel Contracting, Inc.’ (see pages 7-8 of this PDF compilation of Mora City Council minutes). Clearly, a contractor who stands to win contracts cannot be objective and should NOT be guiding an environmental review process.
  7. If FAA would be flexible, they could choose to forgive the City’s obligation to build this crosswind runway (perhaps with encouragement from elected officials such as Senators Franken and Klobuchar). In so doing, FAA would simply and reasonably justify that the roughly $100,000 spent was lost due to the decline in general aviation activity these past ten years, as well as the overall economic bust of 2008.

KJMR.20160622.. 'Plan view showing grading limits, mounds, butternut trees' (SEH Engineering, 'p.74 of Written Re-Evaluation of the 2004 EA)

(a page from the 2016 update of the 2004 Environmental Assessment, showing grading limits, a potential archaeological mound, and endangered butternut tree locations.)


KJMR.aerial view of airport, from Minnesota Airport Directory & Travel Guide, markedup
The following pages offer an extensive collection of documents and images (photos, maps, satellite views, etc.) covering roughly two decades of aviation impact activism at this quiet rural community.

pg.2: Document Archives [KJMR]
pg.3: Images [KJMR]

Update: The Fight for Local Control (and eventual closure?) of the Santa Monica Airport [KSMO]

The level of organization in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport in Santa Monica continues to be impressive. This is not surprising, though, as the fight for local control over their local airport has been going on for more than THREE DECADES! The latest progress includes a push for the City Council to “…close the Santa Monica Airport to aviation use, as soon as that is legally permitted with a goal of June 30, 2018 and earlier if possible….” In support, a local Facebook group, SMOfuture, has created an 18-page factual summary of airport data that supports the closure proposal (a scrollable PDF copy is viewable at the bottom of this Post).

Take a look at the graphs in the report. There has been a lot of change in three decades. Some of the original impacts have all but disappeared. The main remaining airport impacts are the most severe, and are caused primarily by air charter jets and flight training pattern work. The flights that create the worst pollution – including added pollution at LAX due to delays – are the IFR departures. These are commonly charter jets and business jets, frequently carrying only one or two passengers. Each of these flights creates an enormous carbon impact per passenger mile, all for the ‘convenience’ of that small passenger load.

None of this is necessary, and KSMO offers no tangible benefits to the larger ‘National Airspace System’ (NAS). If an airport closure happened, flights using Santa Monica Airport would easily be absorbed at LAX, Burbank, Van Nuys and Hawthorne. The capacity at these other airports is far beyond the current usage. Indeed, as shown in the scrollable PDF below, everything has declined substantially at all Southern California airports, with the vast majority of airports seeing declines between 40% and 60%! The declining parameters include number of based aircraft, number of pilots, and number of operations per day. The only ‘growth’ at KSMO is in commercial flights, for air charter.

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


That these health impacts and other problems persist is testimony to how entrenched FAA is, in a position that consistently protects elite airport interests, delaying any and all meaningful action. At this and other airports across then nation, locals are disgusted at this ongoing FAA failure. Adding insult to injury, the bulk of this poor performance by FAA is done using the Peoples’ money, primarily from airline passenger taxes.

See also:
  • SMO Future – a Facebook group, advocating to reduce airport pollution, noise, dangers, and costs, and seeking a better future use of the airport land.

FAA Offers $10 Million Giveaway to Buy Support for NextGen

The NextGen program that is destroying communities while supplementing airline profits has been needing more money to advance further. But, the program is seeing increasing resistance, especially from impacted homeowners. So, in order to garner more support and create the appearance of public acceptance needed to convince Congress to invest more public money into NextGen, FAA has announced an investment of $10,000,000 to subsidize ADS-B Out installations on small aircraft.

(click on image to view source article at AOPA.org)

(click on image to view source article at AOPA.org)

The new program will rebate up to $500 per aircraft to as many as 20,000 owners, which FAA believes to be roughly one-eighth of eligible aircraft. Bear in mind, rebate eligibility is restricted to single-piston-engine, fixed-wing aircraft that have not yet added this equipment, which FAA is requiring no later than January 2020, for all pilots who want to access ‘busier’ airspace. In other words, while NextGen is a program aimed at serving the airlines, FAA is directing its supposedly scarce resources to the lowest performing, personal-use aircraft … the vast majority of which will never have an urgent need to fly near any of our thirty busiest airline airports.

As some of the smarter online commenters have noted, what usually happens when a federal subsidy is announced is the industry jacks up the price of the product/service being subsidized. And also commonly, the subsidy is just a ‘gift’ for a huge number of recipients who had already planned to purchase the product/service anyway. So, in total, it is effectively FAA giving $10 Million to the aviation electronics industry. As if on queue, the aviation media reports that alphabet-group lobbyists are ‘applauding’.

20160607scp.. portion of article re $500 ADS-B subsidy, alphabet groups (GANews)

(click on image to view source article at GANews)

Congress never put this $10 Million scheme through an appropriation process. Congress never authorized this substantial expenditure. This $10 Million is just FAA, acting arbitrarily and on its own, as a lobbyist seeking to tip to the balance toward more NextGen funding by Congress. Which begs the question: if FAA has $10 Million or more to arbitrarily spend, how else might they spend OUR money to serve the Public?

How Might FAA Better Invest $10 Million?

Here’s two simple ideas (readers are encouraged to share their ideas, too!):

  1. for the NextGen-impacted people of Phoenix, offer a small subsidy to the airlines to fly the old departure routes out of KPHX. Try this for just 2-months, pay Southwest and American a couple million tops to cover their added cost, and see what it does to noise complaints and residential quality of life.
  2. for the NextGen-impacted people in the NYC area, take advantage of the current major project to upgrade the LaGuardia terminal (at KLGA). This is a great opportunity for a ‘test’. For a period of at least 6-months, get the airlines to voluntarily reduce their daily schedule by say 25%, and hourly flow rates to say a maximum of 25 takeoffs per hour. With these lower and more manageable KLGA traffic levels, revert to the old (and since-abandoned) noise abatement departures such as Whitestone Climb. Get the airlines to voluntarily make this happen, then see what a scaled-down LaGuardia does to improve efficiencies and reduce impacts for both JFK and Newark. The results may be surprising.