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Colorado lead studies failed to detect measurable aviation pollution

State lawmakers propose expedited avgas elimination nonetheless

Notwithstanding the lack of detectable lead in air and surface samples taken in three Colorado communities near Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in 2023 (findings that came to light only after pilots obtained the reports via freedom of information requests), the legislature is now considering a nakedly anti-aviation bill that AOPA will vigorously oppose.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

The legislation introduced February 12 seeks to penalize airports that do not adopt a plan to phase out avgas sales by January 1, 2026, restricting the use of "state aviation grant program" funds for such airports, and would add two members to the Colorado Aeronautical Board, expressly excluding pilots and requiring the governor to "give priority to individuals who are not trained pilots and who reside directly in the predominant flight path of a high-traffic general aviation airport or commercial airport at which there is significant general aviation activity" when appointing the new voting members, according to the bill's summary.

This is not the first manifestation of anti-airport, anti-GA sentiment in Colorado, nor likely the last. Homeowners in the vicinity of the same Denver airport filed suit in December seeking the same end—curtailment or elimination of GA operations—notwithstanding the fact that local communities long ignored advice to the contrary and allowed construction of residential developments in the vicinity of an active airport.

In both the legal and legislative contexts, residents and governments at the local and state level seek to violate the longstanding principle that the FAA has final authority over aviation, and attempts by state and local governments to impose their own regulations, while not new, are doomed to fail in court.

Given the overtly hostile approach evident in recent government actions, it should not surprise pilots that a series of recent tests conducted with the apparent goal of establishing that piston airplanes are contaminating the area around Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport with lead did not come to light until AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Brad Walker obtained the documents under a freedom of information request to the town of Superior, Colorado, which commissioned at least four studies during the course of 2023, with samples taken in Superior, Lafayette, and Louisville, Colorado, on various dates.

The contractor, Pinyon Environmental Inc., was unable to detect lead in any of the air or surface sampling locations chosen by the towns, other than one surface contamination sample obtained at a historic local structure believed to be painted (still) with lead-containing paint, facts summarized in a February 8 media release from the Colorado Aviation Business Association and the Colorado Pilots Association.

"Colorado’s aviation community is pleased with the finding of studies commissioned by our neighbors that confirmed that our communities are not being contaminated with lead," the organizations said in the joint release. "While we are puzzled as to why these three municipalities have not publicized these results, the findings themselves are unsurprising and confirm what several others around the country have found."

The group was referring to studies including one that came to light in 2022, when The Mercury News of San Jose, California, uncovered lead contamination studies conducted by Santa Clara County that found lead levels in the soil around Reid-Hillview of Santa Clara County Airport were below local, state, and federal safety limits, with similar findings documented in another study at San Martin Airport. Despite this lack of evidence, the communities made the unprecedented decision to unilaterally ban avgas sales in 2022, putting safety at risk in the view of AOPA and other aviation groups.

The Colorado aviation organizations reiterated the commitment made by the wider GA community to eliminate lead from aviation fuel as soon as it can be done safely. The Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions coalition represents a broad array of stakeholders, public and private, seeking to remove all lead from aviation fuel by 2030, if not sooner.

"This in no way diminishes our commitment to pursuing a safe, orderly transition away from leaded avgas," the Colorado groups said. "We, along with the entire aviation industry, are eagerly working with manufacturers on a safe, commercially viable unleaded alternative by the end of 2030 or sooner. Low-lead fuel is used in piston engine aircraft as a safety requirement to prevent catastrophic engine failure and is accordingly required for the safe operation of many aircraft. Aircraft needing the higher-octane fuel to fly safely include those performing such important missions as search and rescue, disaster relief, agricultural support, law enforcement and medical transport."

AOPA continues to work with both of those organizations, and others like them in other states, to fend off legislation driven by airport animus rooted in uninformed fears—and to a large degree by noise complaints from residents who built houses in, or moved to, airport-adjacent neighborhoods before deciding they preferred to live without airplane noise.

The endangerment finding released by the Environmental Protection Agency in October brought new focus to longstanding efforts to monitor airport-adjacent neighborhoods for lead contamination that have produced less clear-cut results over the years than the more recent sampling efforts commissioned by Colorado communities. The EPA relied significantly on studies that found elevated lead levels in blood samples taken from individuals living near airports, though the conclusions that aviation was the source of that lead required certain assumptions, the absence of other obvious sources, and statistical analysis of large populations.

"There is mounting evidence that recent litigation and legislation in Colorado are both based on perception more than reality," said AOPA Northwest Mountain Regional Manager Brad Schuster. "Fanning emotional flames to muster community opposition to airports does not actually make people safer, but it does have the potential to do real economic damage. We can protect jobs and maintain critical services with a safe, sensible transition to unleaded fuel, and while we work on that, we meanwhile urge state and local governments to please pay attention to the facts."

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Advocacy, Avgas, State Legislation

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