SUNSET PARK — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday began collecting air and soil samples at Santa Monica Airport for a new lead emissions study that could lead to stronger federal regulations.

A team of researchers is expected to spend approximately a week gathering samples on airport property and conducting air monitoring at the site toward the west end of the runway and what is considered the maximum impact site toward the east end. They will also collect dust and soil and interview residents at approximately half a dozen homes near the airport.

The purpose of the study on lead particles from piston planes at SMO is to develop a model that will help federal officials form new regulations for emissions. Officials stressed that the study is not a health risk assessment, though its data could be used for one in the future, nor does it look at emissions from jets — a hot button issue for neighbors surrounding the airport.

“This is a really scientific study to improve the (existing) model so that the air quality model can be used across the country at different airports,” Arnold Den, the senior adviser at the EPA’s San Francisco office, said. “That is really the primary purpose as opposed to doing a specific health risk or risk assessment from lead emissions.”

The study was triggered by a petition in 2006 by Washington D.C.-based Friends of the Earth to study the impact of leaded fuel, focusing on aviation, the largest remaining mobile sources of lead.

The EPA selected Santa Monica Airport because there are no stationary sources, such as plants or factories, within a mile that could alter results. SMO was also a strong candidate because it was already the subject of a South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) study that looked at ultra-fine particles and lead at the airport, giving the EPA a foundation from which to work.

Officials said the levels at SMO are lower than the national standard.

The agency also found it attractive that SMO is one of the nation’s oldest general aviation airports in a dense urban area.

Air traffic overall at SMO has been down over the past several years and is at historically low levels. There were 124,000 flight operations at the airport last year, down from 230,000 just 10 years ago, a decrease that is attributable to the economy, Airport Manager Bob Trimborn said.

Trimborn added that he doesn’t anticipate much of a difference between the EPA’s findings and those found in the AQMD report.

Federal officials said they don’t believe that the downward trend will skew results, noting that it’s one that is taking place at airports across the country and is reflected in the national decrease in leaded aviation gas usage.

Trimborn said that the monitoring at the airport will not affect operations.

“No one will even know it’s happening unless you see people standing next to the monitors,” he said.

The results of the study will be available early next year.

The sampling portion of the study commences nearly six months after EPA officials first proposed it at a well-attended Airport Commission meeting.

Den said the community has been cooperative since.

“I’m just amazed at their willingness for us to come in and do what it takes to sample soil and put up what I’ll call noisy air monitors in their backyard,” he said.

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