Town Discusses Lead from Airplane Emissions

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By: 
Kevin Murphy

TOWN OF MIDDLETON–Middleton Municipal Airport-Morey Field remains Dane County’s second biggest source of lead emissions and the Middleton Town Board last week heard about its harmful effects on people.

“Lead in the air is the motherlode of lead exposure in the human body,” said Dr. Beth Neary, a Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UW-Madison.

Neary went on to say that there is no safe level of lead in the blood system; that lead is a neuro toxin that damages the developing brain permanently, leading to lower IQ scores in children; lead is toxic to all cells and that society pays a deep cost for each child who is lead poisoned.

Incidents of lead poisoning in children have decreased since unleaded gasoline became universally available in 1976. Twenty years later, the Clean Air Act banned the use leaded gasoline in new vehicles other than aircraft, racing cars, farm equipment, and marine engines.

About 78,000 gallons of leaded fuel were sold at Morey Field in 2019. Leaded fuel is used by most of the approximately 100 piston-driven aircraft hangered at Morey, and their emissions constitute the 217 pounds of lead annually produced there, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Town residents annoyed by the repetitious training flights that circle their homes west of the airport now have become concerned about the lead emission from those planes.

Unlike finding lead in drinking water, Neary said there is little that can be done to avoid the harm posed by lead in the air.

“Children in Flint, Michigan, you could give them bottled water, but how do you find them another choice for air,” she said.

Airborne lead emissions descend to the ground and become part of the soil in school playgrounds, gardens and parks. There are two elementary schools, daycares and about 900 homes within three miles west of the airport’s main runway.

Offering unleaded aviation fuel could lower the amount of annual lead emissions around the airport. While unleaded fuel is certified for use in about 67 percent of piston-driven planes, Town Chair Cynthia Richson said that Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should expedite the process to certify its use in more types of aircraft.

“Unleaded 94 Swift Fuel didn’t exist when the Transportation Research Board began certifying aviation fuels, but it’s a high quality fuel…and efforts should be made to certified it in more than 67 percent of piston-driven planes,” she said in a phone interview last Thursday.

One hundred octane leaded fuel is sold at the Middleton airport as most aircraft are certified to use that type of gas, said Richard Morey, the airport’s manager and fixed-based operator.

“There’s no (Federal Aviation Administration) acceptable substitute for it in high- compression engines. We’re stuck with what we have,” Morey said.

Older planes with lower-compression engines can run on UL94 but most of the planes hangered at Middleton need 100-octane leaded fuel, he said.

When surveyed about switching to unleaded gas, only 12 pilots said they were interested, and just seven said they would change if the fuel was same price.

Morey said he didn’t know the price of the unleaded fuel but it’s available at the Waunakee and Sauk Prairie airports.

Sauk Prairie Airport sells Swift Fuel’s UL 94 for $4.12 per gallon.

Sauk Prairie didn’t sell fuel until 2017 when Lynn Erickson, a hanger owner, put in an approximately $80,000 tank and began selling unleaded. Engine makers say the unleaded causes less spark plug and valve fouling and contributes less contaminates in the oil compared to leaded fuel, he said.

More than half of Sauk Prairie’s 30 pilots use UL94, he said.

“It is more expensive than 100 leaded but pilots like it. Some can’t use it and go elsewhere. Monroe has a good price on leaded 100,” Erickson said.

Swift Fuels seeks to replace 100-octane leaded aviation fuel with the 100-octane unleaded aviation fuel it has developed. The company is working with aircraft manufacturers and the FAA to achieve FAA certification for it in engines and airframes “across the “North American fleet,” it announced last spring.

Swift Fuels set a three-to-five year timetable for the expansive certification process.

“They’ve been at it quite a while,” Erickson said.

Introducing another type of fuel at Middleton would require an $80,000 storage tank for which there is no FAA funding currently available. Morey said the FAA’s priorities rank runway maintenance above replacing fuel tanks. Erickson said the Trump administration “didn’t care about the environment” but there could be FAA money made available under the Biden Administration.

Morey doesn’t see lead emissions from aviation gas to be a significant local source of pollution. 

“We’re talking about 90 aircraft based here, that’s a lot less than cars running down Airport Road and awful lot of harm comes from the tailpipes of cars,” he said.

There’s also a lot of lead left in the ground north east of the airport where the Middleton Gun Club once operated a gun range, he said.

The Town Board is interested in Morey’s suggestion to monitor the air for lead emissions near the airport and elsewhere in the town to compare concentrations.

The Department of Natural Resources could work with the town on lead monitoring, said Chris Bovee, a DNR air management specialist who participated in the board’s virtual meeting last week.

The airport’s lead situation wasn’t initially studied in the proposed Airport Master Plan, but it will briefly addressed in the final draft.

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