WEST L.A. — A State Senate select committee hearing meant to demonstrate the negative health impacts of jet pollution at Santa Monica Airport turned into a trial of SMO, with community members, politicians and even some scientists lining up against the airport.
The hearing was the first in what Sen. Ted Lieu, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Air Quality, promised to be a series of meetings examining various facets of SMO, including the environmental and health impacts and potential mitigation.
Lieu plans to use the information to craft legislation in the State Senate to curb what he considers the dangerous emissions from SMO, which he’s targeting because of its proximity to homes.
“I presented legislation in 2007 and 2008, but it always died in the Senate,” Lieu said. “I’m now in the senate. I feel pretty good about this. I’m going to try again.”
The difference, he hopes, is a number of studies pointing at the deleterious health effects of emissions like those at SMO.
Scientists from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, UCLA and Los Angeles Unified School District presented the findings of seven studies looking at the environment around SMO and other airports.
Each of the studies made a point, Lieu said.
“Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that there are health problems caused by Santa Monica Airport,” Lieu said.
The studies document black carbon and ultrafine particles emitted from the planes that fly in and out of SMO, which studies suggest can cause damage to the lungs and increase asthma and other immunological responses in the elderly and susceptible populations.
It may not be the same visible pollution people are used to, but it’s pollution all the same, said Dr. John Froines, the UCLA Director of Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center.
“We say the air has gotten cleaner over the last 10, 20 and 30 years. Well, it hasn’t,” Froines said. “It’s better in terms of visibility, but there are diseases we see now that we didn’t know about 10 years ago.”
Not only do jet aircraft create what scientists suspect to be dangerous particles, they blast them further into the surrounding environment than other machines that produce similar pollution.
Dr. Suzanne Paulson, a professor and vice chair of the Department of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences at UCLA, drove an electric vehicle around the neighborhoods surrounding SMO measuring emissions.
She found emissions as far as 700 meters downwind from the airport. The average freeway will see its plume extend approximately 300 meters.
Although jet operations dominated the conversation, a study by Dr. Kim-Chi T. Hoang of the Environmental Protection Agency conducted at SMO showed elevated levels of lead, a dangerous chemical known to stunt cognitive growth in children.
Avgas, the fuel used by small planes at SMO, contains lead, while jet fuel does not.
Lead levels surrounding SMO are sometimes five to 10 times higher than other areas of Los Angeles, although they remain around half of the federally-established maximum.
The chemicals and particulates create what community members referred to as a “toxic soup” that they breathe in every day.
The recent studies have empowered residents to speak out, said Kathy Levitt of the Venice Neighborhood Council.
“We know more now than ever before, and we are more worried than ever before,” Levitt said.
Attendees lined up to express their fears and concerns about the airport, documenting the noisiness of the planes as they fly over, the frequency and injustice of planes going over homes in West Los Angeles rather than Santa Monica.
“I came here tonight because I feel helpless,” said Bill Koontz of the Mar Vista Community Council.
Only three voices spoke in support of the airport Wednesday, including Michael Kent, a pilot and Santa Monica resident who suggested that the focus of the hearing should be on how to solve the problems caused by SMO.
“I was hoping this would be more educational,” Kent said, and urged the senator to look at the positive changes taking place that could improve emissions issues.
It might be more productive to look at mitigation rather than closure, given the Federal Aviation Administration’s steadfast stance on keeping SMO open, Kent suggested.
The FAA has maintained that even in the wake of 2015, when certain agreements between City Hall and the federal agency expire, Santa Monica has a responsibility to operate SMO.
“The FAA is fully committed to preserving the federal investment and keeping this airport open and operating, including specific performance of these obligations,” said Ian Gregor, spokesperson for the FAA.
Lieu promised that future hearings would be more inclusive of the pilot community, and not just feature those trying to close the airport.
“Originally we were just going to have the science, but residents wanted to speak,” Lieu said. “The next hearing we’re going to hold will be looking at potential options that we can take to mitigate the health risks at SMO. At that hearing, we’ll look at what the City of Santa Monica is doing, what they’re planning to do and invite the airport pilots and also community folks.”