U.S. Lawmakers Blast FAA, EPA Over Leaded Avgas

Unleaded Avgas
County-owned Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose has transitioned from offering 100LL fuel to Swift UL94 unleaded avgas.
Credit: Santa Clara County

WASHINGTON—U.S. lawmakers lambasted the FAA as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and industry July 28 for the nation’s plodding progress toward removing lead from aviation fuel used in piston-engine aircraft, the largest remaining source of lead emissions into the air.

At a hearing of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, lawmakers rained criticism on the two agencies, which had not sent representatives, for what some described as an environmental justice issue. The hearing was held in part to consider the Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions (EAGLE) program, the latest government-industry initiative to develop a high-octane unleaded avgas to replace leaded fuel.

“I’m holding this hearing today because I am outraged that our federal agencies have failed to prevent lead poisoning near small, general aviation airports,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), the subcommittee chairman, in opening remarks. “There are 20,000 such airports across the country, mostly sited in communities of color and low-wealth communities.” 

“The FAA has chosen a path of delay, holding up the approval of a lead-free alternative fuel for no stated reason,” Khanna charged. “Worse, in similar tactics to those we’ve seen in our committee’s investigation of climate delay and disinformation, the fossil fuel industry and other special interests have also sought to delay the phaseout of leaded aviation fuel.”

Ranking subcommittee member Yvette Herrell (R-New Mexico) said she had cosigned a letter with a colleague calling on House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) to subpoena acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen and EPA Administrator Michael Regan to compel their testimony. “It is unconscionable that each official refused to testify at today’s hearing,” Herrell said in opening remarks. 

However, she added: “I’m grateful that the industry, relevant stakeholders and—despite the refusal to testify today—the FAA, are working together to find a solution through the EAGLE program.”

Among witnesses who testified remotely were Marciela Lechuga, who lives in East San Jose, California, within blocks of Reid-Hillview Airport (RHV), and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. The county-owned airport, long a source of contention in the area, became a flashpoint last summer when supervisors voted to close it by 2031 and to ban the sale of 100 Low-Lead (100LL) fuel as of January 2022. General aviation associations then asked the FAA to intervene, citing safety risks of the “rushed” decision.

“Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose is an important example of the environmental injustices posed by leaded aviation gas,” Chavez said. “Reid-Hillview is one of the highest lead-emitting airports in the country [in] one of the most densely populated neighborhoods of any airport in the nation. It’s located in the east side of San Jose, surrounded by over 52,000 people and 13,000 children within 1.5 mi. of the airport.”

The supervisors voted to close RHV following the release of a study sponsored by Santa Clara County and the California Department of Public Health that found elevated lead levels in the blood of children living in nearby neighborhoods. “Among sampled children [living] less than half a mile from Reid-Hillview, there was an increase in blood-lead levels twice as high as the increase caused by the Flint system failures during the height of the Michigan water crisis,” Chavez said.

RHV lies within the congressional district represented by U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D), who said she was “outraged” the FAA and the EPA had declined to testify at the hearing. “Unfortunately, that’s in keeping with their lack of response to the letters and the communications that we have directed toward them,” she added. “[T]he idea that this administration would try and force the county to poison children is outrageous, and it really needs to stop.”

Also testifying were executives of Swift Fuels of West Lafayette, Indiana, and engineering company General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI), which have both developed high-octane unleaded fuels through the FAA supplemental type certification (STC) route.

Swift Fuels CEO Chris D’Acosta said his company has worked to develop an unleaded avgas that could be used across the U.S. piston fleet for over two years. “That product will be a 100-motor-octane fuel with a 10% renewable component; it will be clean-burning and cost-effective for the U.S. fleet,” he said.

Compared to the EAGLE program’s 2030 goal of delivering unleaded avgas, Swift believes it will obtain fleetwide certification and industry endorsement of its 100-octane unleaded avgas within three years and be able to introduce it at specific airports by 2023, D’Acosta said.

D’Acosta noted that Swift Fuels is the “chief architect and the sole provider” of UL94 unleaded avgas, a lower-octane, FAA-approved fuel that Reid-Hillview and other airports have used to replace 100LL avgas. On July 26, the University of North Dakota Aerospace Sciences college announced an agreement with Swift to supply UL94 for its 100-aircraft flight school. And the FAA-industry EAGLE initiative is considering making UL94 more available nationwide during the transition to unleaded avgas.

GAMI started developing its G100UL unleaded avgas in 2009. Having the new fuel approved by the FAA to run in piston-engine aircraft has been “an exercise in enormous frustration,” Engineering Director George Braly told the subcommittee. “However, after over 12 years of effort, enormous amounts of certification activity involving over 100 senior-level FAA engineers and managers, last March the Wichita aircraft certification regional office sent us an email saying we had completed all of the regulatory requirements to authorize the issuance of FAA Approved Model List supplemental type certificates that cover all of the spark-ignition piston engines in the FAA’s database.”

“They were simply waiting on permission from [FAA] headquarters to do something really hard—pick up a ballpoint pen and put a signature on a piece of paper,” Braly related.

“It’s just amazing the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that’s gone on since March 4 ... If those certificates had been signed in March as the law required them to be signed, I feel fairly confident that by sometime in the month of August or September, there would be railroad cars of high-octane unleaded aviation gasoline in California, going to airports like Reid-Hillview and San Martin and the flight school in Bakersfield.”

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.

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