Greens sue EPA over leaded gasoline for airplanes

Source: Gabriel Nelson • E&E  • Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012

A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit today challenging the use of lead in aviation gasoline, saying that U.S. EPA has not moved swiftly enough to stop the last remaining use of the toxic heavy metal in transportation fuel.

Lead is used as an additive in the aviation gasoline, or avgas, that many smaller, piston-engine airplanes in the United States and Europe burn instead of jet fuel. Avgas remained on the market even as U.S. lawmakers phased out leaded gasoline between 1970 and the mid-1990s, and now environmentalists say the time for a new aviation fuel has come.

“EPA needs to stop excusing the largest source of airborne lead emissions from regulation,” said Deborah Behles, an associate professor at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco. “Taking all of the evidence together, we must address this critical health issue and start phasing out lead in aviation gas now.”

That school’s environmental law clinic filed a 2006 petition asking EPA to ban the fuel, and it also joined with the advocacy groups Earthjustice and Friends of the Earth in filing today’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit says the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to decide whether the fuel’s emissions threaten public health.

Although the amount of lead released into the air within U.S. borders has fallen by more than 95 percent since the phaseout of leaded gasoline began, aviation fuel is now responsible for roughly half of what’s left. EPA has set up monitoring devices at 15 airports to decide whether airplanes have exposed anyone to more lead than air quality standards allow.

According to EPA statistics, there are 16 million people living near the general aviation airports that usually sell avgas, and 3 million children attending school nearby.

Some researchers have found a small but noticeable effect from the airplanes that take off and land nearby. One paper published last summer in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives by Duke University researchers estimated that avgas is responsible for a small percentage of the lead in children’s blood, rising from 2 percent to 4 percent when a child lives 500 meters from an airport rather than 1,000 meters away

Lead exposure can cause health problems including developmental problems and lost IQ in children.

EPA put out advance notice of a possible rulemaking two years ago, saying the agency would study the potential health effects for itself and come to a conclusion. Environmental groups threatened a lawsuit last year in hopes of spurring the federal government to come up with a plan.

“We are simply asking the EPA to move more quickly and definitively in establishing regulations that would protect millions from ill health caused by the known toxic effects of lead,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney working the case for Earthjustice.

Also in the mix is the Federal Aviation Administration, which has tasked a commission with finding a replacement for avgas. The fuel is more expensive than ordinary gasoline, making it unattractive to many pilots, but it is hard to displace because the lead additive prevents certain engines from experiencing a harmful malfunction known as “knocking.

Ban would be ‘disaster’ for Alaska — governor

The possibility that avgas will disappear has alarmed the pilots of those airplanes, especially in Alaska, which uses about a third of the roughly 180 million gallons of leaded avgas sold in the United States each year. Gov. Sean Parnell (R) and all three members of the state’s congressional delegation have told EPA to tread lightly, saying the state’s heavy reliance on small airplanes for transportation and shipping to remote towns makes it vulnerable to change

A ban on avgas “would turn thousands of piston-engine aircraft in Alaska into scrap, render billions of dollars invested over decades in airport infrastructure useless, devastate our economy, destroy thousands of jobs, and strand hundreds of Alaskan communities and their residents,” Parnell wrote in a 2010 letter to EPA. “It would truly be a disaster” (Greenwire, Oct. 7, 2011).

Other pilots have started looking for a way around avgas. One two-year-old group called the Aviation Fuel Club has encouraged airports around the country to line up supplies of “mogas,” which is ordinary premium gasoline with no lead and no ethanol

There are now about 110 airports selling the fuel.

Kent Misegades, a longtime recreational pilot from Cary, N.C., who is one of the group’s directors, said most planes would work fine with mogas, which is already available for purchase from petroleum terminals. (Misegades also works as manager of aviation and marine sales for U-Fuel, a company based in Eau Claire, Wis., that sells fuel tanks and equipment to the industry.)

While the switch might not work easily for every airplane and airport, pilots can’t wait for the problem to be solved, he said. There is only one remaining supplier of the lead additive for avgas, adding to the risk that supplies of the fuel could dry up.

“We’re walking ’round with a big bull’s-eye on our back, because we’re the last people using leaded fuel,” Misegades said. Leaded gasoline for cars was much more prevalent, and therefore more of a risk, but “the public perception today is that any amount of lead in the atmosphere or the water is too high.”

“Whether or not you think that there is a true danger caused by aircraft today is irrelevant,” he added. “We lost that argument a long time ago in the public eye, and I think it’s a waste of time to try and argue agains