As discussed in a prior article in the Santa Monica Daily Press entitled, “Santa Monica Airport (SMO), Leaded Avgas, and Childhood Blood Lead Levels: Profound Pediatric Health Consequences,” what is clear is that:

1. Avgas is the largest source of lead in air in the United States.

2. SMO sells leaded avgas and allows aircraft using leaded avgas into its airport.

3. Blood lead levels in our children near the airport has profound and  drastic short and long-term health consequences.”

What is not commonly known is that the City of Santa Monica is facilitating and promoting the sale of leaded AvGas at SMO.  The common facade the city has hid behind is something called the Consent Decree, which represents an agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made in 2017.  Part of this agreement states that. “Nothing in this agreement shall allow the City to restrict the sale of leaded aviation fuel for as long as the FAA authorizes use of such fuels within the United States.”  

However, Alan Levenson (Founder of No Jets and Environmental Activist) and other Activists who have researched our agreements note that while the city cannot restrict the sale of leaded fuel nothing in the agreement states that the City of Santa Monica must sell leaded AvGas or provide tanks for lease to sell this toxic fuel. Though the City of Santa Monica should do everything possible to stop the sale of leaded AvGas at SMO the consent decree still permits other private agencies such as Atlantic Aviation to sell leaded AvGas at SMO. Therefore the fuel storage tanks owned by the City of Santa Monica can be restricted to only the sale of unleaded AvGas and 80% of the SMO fleet can use this unleaded fuel. 

Seldom is it an issue to prepare for the “Best Case Scenario,” so it is crucial to consider how to best consider the risks associated with the storage of fuel underground at SMO.   We really don’t get any advance warning when an earthquake might take place and Environmental Protection Agencies note that “following a substantial earthquake it is important to examine all underground storage tank (UST) systems for damage. A damaged or improperly operating UST system can pose a significant risk to human health, safety, and the environment.”

In fact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cautions that “natural disasters – such as tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and fires – are often unpredictable, cause significant damage, and can be costly to mitigate. Underground storage tank (UST) systems can be vulnerable to damage during natural disasters and can even release regulated substances into the environment.” 

California is particularly susceptible to earthquakes and fuel storage accidents as witnessed in San Francisco in 2019  and Los Angeles in 2015.  Given the problems at underground gas storage facilities, a 2014 United States study by the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Centre determined that “… underground natural gas storage activities bear risks that are substantial enough to affect nearby residents, and that these impacts are more severe in proximity, concentration, and for properties without access to public water.”

One aspect of earthquakes and fuel storage is the possible leaks and adverse affects to our aquifers, which are our main sources of water.  Contaminated aquifers can affect water availability and subsequent health issues for decades or even centuries.  A study by the EPA investigating lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft using leaded aviation gasoline noted that ethylene dibromide may “enter underground aquifers via leaking underground storage tanks or fuel spills. Studies demonstrate that ethylene dibromide may persist for long periods of time in certain groundwater environments.

Due to the seriousness of this possible environmental emergency the EPA Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) and Office of Research and Development’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory (NRMRL) in association with the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ATSWMO) have formed a team to evaluate the potential for public health and welfare effects attributable to ethylene dibromide from past or present fuel leaks and spills.

These agencies found that “water samples for this study were provided by State agencies to EPA between October 2005 and July 2007. Of the 802 groundwater samples provided from 102 sites, ethylene dibromide was detected in 54 samples, 43 of which had ethylene dibromide concentrations above the Maximum Concentration Level.”  It is important to note that could have been much worse since these sites did not include the analysis of groundwater at airports. 

But the City of Santa Monica, might ask are we immune from issues of fuel storage leaks?  A review of the recent past, suggests otherwise.  For instance, a spill in the Charnock Sub-Basin led the EPA to investigate the cleanup of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive, from a groundwater basin formerly used for drinking water by the City of Santa Monica, California.

Another illustration is the extensive clean up of drinking water contamination needed at Santa Monica’s Olympic Well field, where an aquifer is located that underlies Olympic Boulevard and surrounding areas in the eastern part of the City, and represents the City’s second largest groundwater supply.

A story in the Daily Press said “Contamination in Santa Monica has come from several sources. Locations of suspected and known soil and water contamination are tracked and cataloged by the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), a department of the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), and by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). Leaking underground storage tanks of petroleum and other chemicals have allowed pollutants to seep into the soil and water in some parts of the Santa Monica Basin. Some sites are actively leaking or are in the process of being tested.”

The primary groundwater producing areas for the Silverado aquifer are the City of Santa Monica’s Olympic and Charnock Wellfields. At the west, the Santa Monica Airport also has a well, that feeds into the aquifer and the yields are approximately 300 gallons per minute.  So safety is an important concern with leaded or even unleaded AvGas fuel underground storage and sale in and around SMO since there is a well at SMO that feeds into the Silverado aquifer. 

Since lead in AvGas is one of the largest air and soil contaminant source in our environment the City of Santa Monica should immediately stop their sale of this toxic fuel.  However it should also consider stopping their involvement with the storage of fuel underground at SMO.  When we consider the health of our citizens and environment the risk of storing fuel that could lead to health risks affecting our aquifers warrants our serious attention.  

As SMO and the City of Santa Monica are preparing to close the airport by 2029, according to the consent decree, it only makes sense that the city should stop the sale of leaded AvGas and eliminate the City’s storage of underground AvGas Fuel.  The consent decree allows other private agencies, other than the city, within SMO to store and sell AvGas fuel.  This solution insulates the city from liability due to conceivable class action suits against the city for the sale of leaded AvGas and its social health consequences and eliminates the risk associated with underground fuel storage leaks.

Submitted by Charles Blum