Sean Belk
July 17, 2012

Although a recent report sets a 2018 deadline for coming up with an alternative to leaded aviation fuel, or avgas, the recommendation won’t likely impact a lawsuit in California that threatens to enforce stiff fines for selling the fuel in the state, according to an official from the National Air Transportation Association (NATA).

The environmental group that filed the case, however, said the local lawsuit may help spur the industry to come up with an alternative fuel even quicker, ending the use of avgas, which the group said creates “public health threats” for communities near airports.

Attorneys for Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health filed a legal complaint last year in Alameda County Superior Court against several California businesses, including four operators at Long Beach Airport, which supply and produce 100 octane low-lead (100LL) avgas to aircraft users. The suit claimed the businesses violated state law by not sufficiently providing warnings about the potential for lead exposure to residents near airports.

Avgas is currently the last fuel in the country to still use lead, a toxic metal, as an additive. The fuel is used mostly by small piston-engine aircraft and some helicopters, typically known as general aviation.

A study released last year indicated that children living near general aviation airports run the risk of high levels of lead exposure. Long Beach Airport is listed as the second highest for lead emissions in California, below Van Nuys Airport, and the sixth highest in the United States, according to a 2008 national EPA study.

The legal action in California is based on Proposition 65, known as the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, established in 1986, which allows individuals and independent groups to enforce the law by taking legal action on behalf of the state. If the case is eventually upheld, avgas sellers and producers could be assessed fines of up to $2,500 per day for lead exposures, including past violations. The law also allows prosecuting parties to get a 25 percent share of the penalties.

The NATA, which is spearheading the defense, however, said many aviation businesses have no other option but to provide avgas to general aviation users, since there is currently no official alternative to lead-based aviation fuel and the businesses are required under lease agreements to provide avgas to pilots and aircraft users.

Last month, the Unleaded Avgas Transition Aviation Rulemaking Committee submitted a “final report” to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), determining that “developing a fiscally responsible action plan” for finding an alternative to avgas won’t be likely for another six years. The report also states that a “drop in” unleaded replacement fuel that can be used by the entire general aviation fleet is “not currently available and may not be technically feasible.” The committee, however, recommends coming up with a program to conduct a “fleet-wide evaluation, certification and deployment” of an alternative to avgas.

Michael France, director of regulatory affairs for NATA, however, told the Business Journal that the determination won’t impact the lawsuit in California, mainly because the legal threats are purely based on the state’s law. The NATA has requested that the FAA and the Environmental Protection Agency mediate the matter, while taking the case to federal court last year, but so far the federal agencies have not come to their defense, he said.

“[The report] is positive in that it puts forth a vision for transitioning general aviation to an unleaded fuel, but it really doesn’t have an impact on this lawsuit that’s going on right now,” France said. “There is a pretty significant state’s rights issue . . . None of the federal agencies yet deemed that this is something they need to be involved in at the moment.”

Although the NATA has stated that the supply of avgas in California is currently not threatened, fixed based operators that sell avgas and fuel producers have continued to pay legal costs for fighting the case.

Charles Margulis, spokesperson for CEH, stated via e-mail, “We’re pleased that the FAA has set a timeline and we expect our legal action will push the industry to move even more quickly towards ending the health threats from leaded fuel.”

Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Friends of the Earth against the EPA last March due to the agency failing to make a finding that using avgas may endanger public health, said the new report admits there are no market-driven reasons to come up with an alternative to avgas. This proves, she said, that the EPA needs to step up and enforce a mandate, adding that the public shouldn’t have to wait for industry reasons to prevent health risks.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve known lead is a danger . . . It’s been a long time since we phased lead out of motor fuel and we know that aviation fuel is the No. 1 contributor to lead air emissions in the country,” Lado said. “It’s clear even in this report that it is important to drive this change to have a regulatory mandate, otherwise this process can take forever . . .The endangerment [finding] will help to drive a timeline to this process and create incentives for the market to make this change.”

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