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Napa County Airport

Signs warning of potential air pollution dangers of leaded fuel fumes from small airplanes will go up at Napa County Airport and 22 other California airports.

The move comes about because of a recent lawsuit settlement among the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health and 30 defendants that sell or distribute fuel at airports. Napa Jet Center, the aviation service provider at Napa County Airport, was among the defendants.

Each defendant must post three warning signs at least two feet by two feet in size at conspicuous locations, such as along roads. The signs will say people within one kilometer of the airports—a little over a half-mile—can be exposed to lead, a chemical known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

Caroline Cox of the Center for Environmental Health said one goal is to spur the aviation industry to make unleaded fuel available for propeller planes. Commercial aircraft use unleaded jet fuel.

“The intent is not to make people scared or panicked, but to give people information,” Cox said on Tuesday. “Really, the bottom line like everything else is there’s a lot of politics involved. People in the aviation industry need to hear from all of us that they need to use a less polluting fuel. That’s what will inspire change.”

At issue is lead found in aviation gasoline – or avgas—for small piston-engine propeller aircraft. Avgas has raised health questions similar to those that surrounded automobile leaded gasoline phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1995.

Some small aircraft can use a high-octane, lead-free automotive gasoline called Mogas, but Mogas is not sold in California because of state fuel requirements concerning ethanol content and other factors, the settlement said.

“General aviation’s future for avgas is ultimately going to be some type of unleaded,” Napa Jet Center Chief Executive Officer Mark Willey said. “The industry knows it. It’s a difficult task, because the aircraft have to be able to fly safely. The engines have to be able to perform. That’s why there’s lead in there now.”

Willey said the signs required by the lawsuit settlement are an awareness issue. He pointed out that similar warning signs under California’s 1986 Proposition 65 can be seen at places ranging from grocery stores to gasoline stations.

“It’s an opportunity to look around and make the environment better,” Willey said on Tuesday.

Avgas used at the 23 airports has an octane rating of 100 and is “low lead,” according to the settlement. “Very low lead” avgas has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, but is not available commercially in California.

The settlement says that the airports will sell the airplane fuel with the lowest lead that’s available.

“That will really help,” Cox said. “That hopefully will be quicker than waiting for the switch to completely unleaded fuel.”

The FAA has set a 2018 deadline to have a replacement, unleaded fuel on the market, Cox said. She expressed hope the agency sticks to the deadline.

What the Center for Environmental Health calls the one-kilometer lead “exposure zone” around Napa County Airport includes industrial and business development near the airport and wetlands in the Napa-Sonoma marshes. It does not include residential subdivisions.

Among the other defendants involved in the settlement are Sacramento Executive Airport, Hayward Executive Airport, Oakland International Airport, Palo Alto Airport and Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa

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