Hanscom Field Advisory Commission Investigates ~ The Trouble with Leaded Avgas

The Hanscom Field Advisory Commission (HFAC) is increasing the pressure on the Massachusetts Port Authority to address the issue of aircraft that use fuels with lead.

The regional panel met on Jan. 19, 2021, and requested Anthony Gallagher, Massport community relations representative, provide an inventory of aircraft based at Hanscom Field that could be capable of using UL94, which is unleaded aviation gasoline.

Avgas was on HFAC’s agenda because of concerns raised last fall by several residents over their fear of potential lead contamination of airfield neighborhood soil and air by avgas emissions from the thousands of monthly flight operations by piston-engine aircraft at Hanscom Field.

“Why do planes at Hanscom Field fly on leaded gas?  The short answer is, that’s the only gas available that they can fly on,” HFAC Chair Christopher Eliot explained. “At this particular airport,” Bedford resident Patty Dahlgren added.

Dahlgren was referring to Eliot’s earlier mention that although Hanscom Field only sells leaded avgas for piston-engine aircraft (jet fuel contains no lead), 60 other airports in the country do sell UL94, including two in Massachusetts at Falmouth and Great Barrington.

“It’s quite difficult, there’s no magic solution,” Eliot said, citing problems inherent in developing unleaded avgas. These include the reluctance of energy companies to invest in research on avgas because of the relatively small market; hesitation of owners of aircraft capable of using UL94 to switch because of its limited availability; federal paperwork required to certify each plane to use UL94; and the inability of certain high-performance piston-engine aircraft to use UL94 without engine modification.

Despite that, Eliot remains hopeful. “I think we should be exploring the possibility that Hanscom Field could obtain the capability to provide that fuel.”

Eliot, citing a recent National Academy of Sciences report, explained, “Because lead is heavy, it doesn’t tend to travel that far.  So the highest concentrations are within 50 meters of the runway.”  However, he said researchers have shown in some cases “it goes as far as 1,000 meters [based on measurements of children’s blood lead levels].  But it’s not blowing miles and miles away from the airport.”

There are residential areas in Bedford, Concord, and Lincoln located around 1,000 feet (305 meters) from Hanscom runways.  The Air Force FamCamp, a recreational campground, is closer than that.  Bedford’s community gardens along Hartwell Road, Concord’s Gaining Ground organic farm, at least two area schools, and one Lexington business are 2,000 feet or less (610 meters) from a runway.

“Regarding Hanscom itself, everything we know about it is modeling,” Eliot said regarding Massport’s calculation that avgas emissions are not a health issue for airfield neighborhoods in its 2017 Environmental Status and Planning Report (ESPR).

That document shows no actual soil or air samples from Hanscom airfield neighborhoods have ever been collected by Massport.  Instead, Massport relies upon complex modeling based on data collected at 17 other general aviation airports in the country (the nearest being Nantucket Memorial Airport), and sets a baseline to calculate local air quality using air sample data from Chelmsford and Kenmore Square in Boston.

Although expressing confidence in the Massport model, Eliot pointed out EPA health studies show “There is no safe level of blood lead.  So zero is the only safe quantity.”

Several residents told the commission they believe actual airfield neighborhood soil and air sampling is merited.  “Models always need to be verified,” said Mark Gailus, an engineer residing in Concord.

It was suggested a source of funding for lead testing might be revenue Massport is required to pay Bedford, Concord, Lexington, and Lincoln from the sale of aviation fuel at Hanscom Field.  The income (averaging $207,894/town/year for the past five years, but projected to drop to $50,000/town in FY2021) goes into the towns’ general funds.

Commission member Margaret Coppe of Lexington said towns might resist earmarking these revenues for possible environmental or air noise mitigation for airfield neighborhoods, especially during the pandemic crisis.

She also noted Massport collects data for air noise levels and vehicle traffic counts near Hanscom Field and suggested HFAC and local communities request Massport also carry out actual lead testing during the public comment period for the 2022 ESPR.

Bedford State Rep. Kenneth Gordon mentioned the Legislature’s climate change bill (which was vetoed by Governor Charlie Baker and subsequently refiled by State Sen. Michael Barrett). “It may be that by a budget request, I can work with my colleagues in the Hanscom towns area, to just get some money through the budget for FY22 [for lead testing],” he suggested, adding, “I don’t think the individuals should be required to pay for it, this testing.”

Concord resident Tanya Gailus praised state representatives for their work on the bill, saying she believes protecting natural resources such as trees “will also contribute to minimizing any hazards from lead or any other pollution in the environment.”

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Gary Keller
Gary Keller
1 year ago

Jennifer, thank you for this informative article on leaded avgas. The data collected at the 17 airports was performed in 2013. Those who care to delve into the research further might take note of where the funding for the study came from. The timing of this study was important for the general aviation industry as it needed something to counter the scientific study of Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda. We as a society do not seem capable of learning from our mistakes. When it was discovered how bad the addition of lead to paint was, they took about 75 years to change the paint to water base. At what cost? They have been taking lead out of fuel for almost 50 years. I thought that we want to take lead out of the environment, not put more into it.

1 year ago

FANTASTIC coverage and always appreciated!

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