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Vero Beach Airport's lead pollution 28th highest of 3,300 U.S. airports

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of November 29, 2012)
Plane from Vero Beach Airport passing over Michael Field.

The Vero Beach Airport has the 28th highest level of lead pollution among more than 3,300 general aviation airports in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The lead comes from leaded aviation fuel burned in some 220,000 take-offs and landings each year.  According to airport director Eric Menger, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “indicated in their most recent studies that the estimate of lead emissions from the Vero Beach Airport is approximately .62 tons per year (about 1,240 pounds).

Those numbers are a major concern to the Airport Oversight Committee, which earlier this fall brought in Howard W. Mielke, Ph.D, a research at Tulane University School of Medicine and world renowned expert on the health dangers of lead contamination, to address the City Council.  Children can be poisoned by incredibly tiny amounts of lead in their blood, he told them.

But to the dismay of committee members, the council appears to have no plan to address the problem.

“The lead is there and we know it is there,” said Mayor Craig Fletcher. “But trying to remediate it would bankrupt the city.”

A particular area of concern for the Airport Oversight Committee is Michael Field, a city-owned baseball complex near the end of the airport’s main runway that Vero Recreation Department Director Rob Slezak says is heavily used by little league teams.

“Vero Beach National Little League teams use it five or six days a week during spring and summer and probably three or four days a week in fall.”

Slezak says kids ages 6 to 12 play one or two games at the field nightly during the week and as many as six games daily on weekends. That amounts to 20 to 25 games each week in which 25 or 30 children are on or around the dusty fields for hours at time.

Annually, there are approximately 20,000 child visits to the park, including multiple visits by the same children who return to the possibly contaminated environment again and again during the baseball season.

According to an article in the September issue of Scientific American, “a 2011 Duke University study found that kids living within 500 meters of an airport where leaded avgas is used have higher blood lead levels than other children, with elevated lead levels in blood found in kids as far as one kilometer away.”

Children poisoned by lead do not typically die but suffer life-long irreversible damage to their intelligence and health and tend to exhibit more violent behavior as adults.

“If we remediated Michael Field, people would want every other place remediated as well, including their front yards,” Fletcher says.

Based on the amount of fuel sold at the airport – 621,837 gallons in 2010 – Oversight Committee members David Reisinger and Ruth Meyer believe the amount of lead deposited in the environment may be more than twice as much as the EPA estimates.

Mielke has researched urban lead contamination and child lead poisoning for more than 30 years.  His 1982 testimony about the dangers of lead pollution before a U.S. Senate committee was instrumental in a rapid nationwide shift from leaded to unleaded gasoline.

Since the ban on leaded gasoline, small piston-driven aircraft like those that use the Vero airport are responsible for approximately 50 percent of airborne lead pollution.

The Oversight Committee wants the city to monitor lead levels in the air around the airport, test soil in the vicinity, especially in areas where children play, to see how much lead has built up in the 70 years since the main runway went into operation, and phase out the sale of leaded aviation gas.

Other cities have taken on the challenge of decontaminating lead-poisoned parks and playgrounds.

New Orleans, where Dr. Mielke has done extensive soil testing and lead pollution mapping, is cleaning up areas where children congregate to play, putting geotextile fabric over contaminated dirt and then covering it with clean fill to keep kids from accidently ingesting lead when they breathe in dust or put their hands in their mouths.

While testing of lead levels at Michael Field would be a first step prior to any remediation, Fletcher says he doesn’t think the city should get involved.

“[The committee] is welcome to test wherever they want to, but I don’t see the city doing it,” he says. “I don’t think there is a high concentration of lead there.”

The FAA and EPA plan to eliminate leaded aviation fuel to protect public health but the changeover won’t occur until 2018, according to government documents.

Fletcher says the city supports federal efforts to gradually phase out leaded aviation gas, but has no plans to require the sale of unleaded fuel at the airport in the meantime.

In a Nov. 20 letter to County Commissioner Bob Solari, who had inquired 11 days before about the city’s plans in the aftermath of Dr. Mielke’s presentation, Fletcher wrote, “Relative to your question about offering unleaded fuel at the airport, please note that the city does not handle aviation fuel itself, but instead leaves that service to its businesses that lease property at the airport. These Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) are better equipped to serve their customers in the free market system, and will comply with any future rulings of the EPA or FAA.”

Risinger and Meyer say the city could use its licensing power to require the FBOs to offer unleaded gas as a way to begin reducing lead contamination.

According to the Aviation Fuel Club, a group of pilots who support the use of unleaded fuel for environmental reasons, more than 100 airports already offer unleaded fuel, including four airports in Florida.

Self-service unleaded aviation fuel is available, among other places, at Page Field Airport in Fort Myers where it goes for $5.71 per gallon, about 75 cents more than leaded fuel. 

Fletcher says he wants the FAA to lead the way because of safety concerns.  “I have been in aviation all my life. The last thing we want is airplanes falling out of the sky [because of engine failure brought on by wrong fuel].”

But the Aviation Fuel Club recently commissioned a study that found “somewhere between 80 and 83 percent of all active piston engine airplanes and helicopters registered in the U.S. could operate on unleaded gas today” without any modifications.

“While it might be convenient for the city to say it will wait for a solution from the FAA, this response fails to even acknowledge severe public health impacts known to and owned by the city,” Ruth Meyer wrote in an e-mail to 32963.

“I’m sure we would all welcome an authoritative and scientifically authenticated study of the existing impacts and potential solutions, a responsibility the Mayor wishes to delegate to the FAA even though the city owns the airport and exists only to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the citizens. It’s an ironic deference to the federal government from a community that spouts smaller government and home rule on a regular basis.”