Noise, Pollution From Buchanan Airport Planes Fuel Frustration, Worry in Martinez
"Constant bombardment" of noise has one Martinez homeowner considering relocating; environmental impacts from planes still using leaded fuel are another concern in Contra Costa County and elsewhere
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By Tom Lochner
Allison Picard loves everything about Martinez and her home of almost 10 years, about a mile-and-a-half from Buchanan Field Airport as the bird (or plane) flies — except for one thing.
And it's so bad, it might run her out of town.
Call it plane engine harassment.
"We have great neighbors, we love our house and planned to spend our retirement years here," Picard wrote in a letter she presented to the Martinez City Council last month. "However, our quality of life is so severely impacted by the small planes who harass our neighborhood day and night in unpredictable patterns — we are now considering relocating."
Picard's home is near Hidden Lakes Park. To the northeast lies Buchanan Field in an unincorporated wedge of neighboring Concord. It is home base to 337 aircraft, including 275 single-engine and 32 multi-engine planes, 20 jets and 10 helicopters, according to Beth Lee, Contra Costa County assistant director of airports (there is another county airport in Byron).
In her letter, Picard complains about the "constant bombardment" (of noise) by piston-engine planes looping over her neighborhood to perform “touch-and-go” takeoff-and-landing exercises. She also worries about pollution from leaded fuel that the planes use.
"They make this loop easily 15-20 times within 60-90 minutes so that we have plane engine harassment about every five minutes — more often if there is more than one plane doing this activity, which in no way is regulated," Picard wrote. "They are permitted to perform these maneuvers seven days a week, as early as 7 a.m. to (as late as) 10 p.m.
"We can never plan to use our patio or entertain outside without fear that we will be subjected to this loud, repeating noise as well as concerns about what is being dumped in the air over the house.
"If a car was circling my house repeatedly booming loud music, I could call the police for a disturbing-the-peace complaint," Picard added. "What relief is there for your citizens to this problem which significantly impacts the quality of our lives?"
Lee said the airport staff has received noise inquiries from nearby residents, and that once an inquiry is received it triggers a series of outreach measures. Moreover, to ensure effective communication and adherence to its airport-related Noise Ordinance, Contra Costa County holds discussions with stakeholders, including community members, flight schools and pilots, Lee said.
Indeed, Picard, in her letter to the council, says she and her neighbors have "met often" with county Director of Airports Greg Baer, who, she says, "has been very informative and patient in explaining the airport's operational needs and constraints." But "our concerns are not within his jurisdiction to remedy."
An email inquiry to Baer on Tuesday was answered with an auto-reply that he will be out of the office until late December, referring inquiries to the Airport Team.
The "constant bombardment" of noise is actually only number two on Picard's list of three concerns she presented to the council. The first is the stuff being dumped in the air: leaded aviation gas.
And with that, Picard is on the cutting edge of an increasingly national concern, until recently mostly epicentered in the Bay Area, spearheaded by Santa Clara County and a coalition of environmental organizations. On Oct. 18 — the same day Picard presented her letter to her council — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its "final determination" that "emissions of lead from aircraft that operate on leaded fuel cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare under the Clean Air Act."
"The science is clear: exposure to lead can cause irreversible and life-long health effects in children," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an Oct.18 news release. "Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions in our air. With today’s action, the Biden-Harris Administration can move forward in the process to propose new standards to protect all communities from the serious threat of lead pollution from aircraft."
The EPA's final determination comes two years and two months after Santa Clara County and a coalition of community groups led by Earthjustice filed a petition calling on the EPA to take steps to eliminate lead pollution from aircraft throughout the United States. That petition came on the heels of a Santa Clara County-commissioned study of lead exposure risks to 13,000 children living near Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose. Similar concerns exist around another Santa Clara County airport, in San Martin.
"Though the use of leaded gasoline in most motor vehicles was banned 25 years ago, leaded aviation fuel is still used by nearly 170,000 piston-engine aircraft operating at 20,000 general aviation airports across the country," an August 24, 2021, news release by Santa Clara County reads in part. (A more recent Federal Aviation Administration report references "more than 222,600 registered piston-engine aircraft" in the general aviation community that can operate on leaded aviation fuel). "Emissions from aviation fuel account for 70% of lead released into the air in the United States," the 2021 news release continued.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, whose district includes Reid-Hillview Airport, called it “a health and equity crisis that extends far beyond our county’s borders."
“It is unconscionable and unacceptable that children like those living near Reid-Hillview Airport continue to breathe lead fumes from piston-engine aircraft," she added, according to the 2021 news release. "The nation’s children deserve better.”
Effective Jan. 1, 2022, Santa Clara County banned the sale and distribution of leaded fuel at Reid-Hillview and San Martin airports, in what by some accounts is the first such action in the nation; however, planes can still operate there with leaded aviation fuel bought elsewhere, like, for instance, San Jose Mineta International Airport, less than 10 miles from Reid-Hillview.
The EPA's strong statement supporting new standards to protect against lead pollution from aircraft stands in some contrast to the reaction of its fellow federal agency, the FAA. In December 2021, shortly after Santa Clara County announced its ban, effective 2022, on the sale of leaded fuels at the two airports, the FAA opened an investigation into the county's action.
The investigation, prompted by "complaints from airport users," is twofold; one part "concerns airfield conditions and land use decisions at Reid-Hillview Airport," the FAA said in an email Wednesday; the agency has since "paused" that investigation. The other part is "related to the county’s decision to ban leaded fuel." That investigation is "ongoing," the FAA said in its email.
Back in Martinez, Picard notes that Hidden Lakes Park is a site for soccer leagues and regional cross-country running competitions. Nearby is Hidden Valley Elementary School, part of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Several schools in Concord, including Mt. Diablo High School, are within about a mile of Buchanan Field.
Said Lee: "Contra Costa County continues to monitor the EPA and FAA efforts relative to the leaded fuel issue." She added that a vast majority of airports use FAA-sanctioned 100-octane, low-lead fuel (often referred to as 100LL), which is available at Buchanan also, according to AirNav.com, a website for pilots.
"The fuel industry is working to develop an unleaded fuel option, and, in preparation, we are working with our tenants and stakeholders to position our airports to use the new fuel at the earliest opportunity," Lee said. But she added, "The county does not have authority or jurisdiction to decide which fuel can be used by what aircraft; that is solely the FAA’s domain."
Picard communicated her concerns about pollution from leaded aviation fuel to her congressman, Mark DeSaulnier, who sits on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. DeSaulnier wrote back that he agrees with Picard, and noted that the committee is considering a bill with a provision that would facilitate "the safe elimination of the use of leaded aviation gasoline by 2030."
It would reaffirm the so-called Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions (EAGLE) Initiative, announced in February 2022 as a "comprehensive public-private partnership" between the FAA and "aviation and petroleum industry stakeholders" with the purpose "to transition to lead-free aviation fuels for piston-engine aircraft by the end of 2030." An FAA report on aviation gasoline and the EAGLE Initiative is at https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/avgas.
Picard deems the 2030 timeline "unacceptable, given the serious known health issues to children and others."
As for the noise issue, it is something with which Contra Costa County has some experience exercising jurisdiction. In the late 1980s, as traffic at Buchanan was growing and noise complaints increased, the county adopted Ordinance 88-82, which includes "Airport Noise Restrictions." Today, Buchanan is one of only a few remaining airports in California to have an FAA-authorized noise ordinance, Lee said.
It restricts flight training during specified hours and bars aircraft above a certain noise level from using the airport. The limit is 78 dBA – dBA is an “A-weighted” decibel measurement that measures sound intensity in consideration of how our ears perceive different pitches, Lee explained. The text of Ordinance 88-82 is at https://www.contracosta.ca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/9009/ORDINANCE-88-82?bidId=
An email inquiry to Contra Costa County District 5 Supervisor Federal Glover was forwarded to District 4 Supervisor Ken Carlson, who also sits on the board of the Bay Air Quality Management District, a Glover aide emailed back — Picard's home is in District 5; Buchanan Field, in District 4. Emails to Carlson and to Martinez Vice Mayor Mark Ross, who also sits on the BAAQMD board, were not responded to as of Sunday.
An email to Gov. Gavin Newsom's office inquiring whether the state is involved, or planning to get involved, in the leaded aviation fuel issue also garnered no response as of Sunday.
The third concern on Picard's list involves real estate disclosures, which she says in her case provided insufficient descriptions of the activity level at Buchanan. She cited a reference on her mortgage disclosure documents: "(It) says shockingly, 'even if the property is not in an identified airport noise influence area, the property may be subject to noise … from airplanes,'" she wrote. "Not to mention any disclosure about the lead exposures," she added. "To whom do we direct this issue?"
"We are looking for your assistance in advocating for your citizens with the appropriate entities," Picard's letter to the council says in conclusion.
City Manager Michael Chandler, in an Oct. 27 email, said the city has no jurisdiction over the Buchanan Airport issues raised by Picard, but that it could perhaps ask the agencies that have jurisdiction to be aware of those concerns.