U.S. regulators plan by 2018 to find a fuel for most piston-engine private planes to replace the gasoline that’s the nation’s largest source of toxic lead emissions.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s move yesterday, posted on its website, marked the first time the agency has stated when it wants to approve an unleaded alternative to leaded gasoline, which powers most U.S. private aircraft 16 years after regulators banned it for cars.
Leaded aviation gasoline was linked in a study last year to elevated levels of the toxic metal in children living near general-aviation airports.
“Both the FAA and the EPA have known for a long time that lead is harmful,” Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth, said in a phone interview. “Six more years is just too long to wait for the public’s health.”
The advocacy group filed suit in March against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force tighter regulation of lead in aviation gasoline. Private planes accounted for 56.9 percent of U.S. lead emissions in 2008, according to the EPA’s most recent data.
The FAA’s statement coincided with the release of a report by an agency advisory committee saying it could take years to fully replace leaded fuel.
Because aviation-gasoline sales have been shrinking for more than 10 years and certifying that a new fuel is safe could be expensive, there’s been little economic incentives for oil refiners, engine manufacturers or plane owners to develop new fuels, the report concluded.
The effort to test new fuels will cost the FAA an estimated $57.5 million over the next 11 years, the committee report said.
There’s no current substitute for 100-octane leaded aviation fuel that would work in all aircraft, the committee concluded.
“The transition may still be years away, but this report charts a road map that identifies the essential elements that need to be addressed to make this happen in a way that maintains safety and the role government should play in minimizing the total cost,” Eric Byer, vice president of the National Air Transportation Association, said in an e-mail statement.
The NATA, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group, represents businesses at airports serving privately owned aircraft, including fuel sellers.
The FAA, in its website statement, said it’s committed to a “fiscally responsible action plan.”
The EPA is continuing to gather data on lead emissions near airports before determining its next steps, Cathy Milbourn, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said in an e-mail.
Some fuel suppliers and a former aircraft-company researcher have disputed statements that there’s no substitute for leaded gas.
Unleaded fuel can work in most existing aircraft, according to Cesar Gonzalez, former head of engine and fuel research at Textron Inc. (TXT)’s Cessna Aircraft unit. Of the remaining planes, most can be modified to use unleaded fuel at a modest cost, Gonzalez said in phone interviews.
Government and industry could also do more to promote existing unleaded fuel, Kent Misegades, a fuel distributor in Cary, North Carolina, and director of a non-profit group that advocates the alternative gasoline, said in a phone interview.
While most small planes can now fly on high-octane automobile gasoline that contains no ethanol, the fuel is available at only about 110 of 5,100 U.S. airports, Misegades said in a phone interview.
An environmental group, the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, notified the EPA yesterday that it intends to sue to force the agency to enforce lead emission standards for states, according to an e-mail statement.
The EPA will review the center’s notice, Milbourn said.
Under lead emission standards introduced in 2008, the EPA required states within three years to submit plans for implementing the changes. Thirty-four states and two territories haven’t filed, the group’s release said.
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