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San Jose Reid-Hillview Airport To Close Because Of Lead Levels Following Vote By County Supervisors

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5 / BCN) -- Santa Clara County Supervisors unanimously approved a measure to close the Reid-Hillview Airport, two weeks after the release of a study that found elevated lead levels in children from the neighborhoods near the airport in East San Jose.

"The immediate crisis is the lead," said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg during a five-hour meeting that ended early Wednesday.

The soonest the airport could close is January and will require the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a news release issued early Wednesday morning by the office of Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who represents the area.

The airport serves small, private planes -- which produce far more lead pollution than larger commercial aircraft -- and is much closer to homes than most airports. The vote comes after a decades-long effort by nearby residents to close the airport.

"I'm pleased with the decision. That was a gutsy move by the Board of Supervisors to make that the board's action," said Tony Ortega, who has lived about a block from the airport for more than 30 years.

Ortega was disturbed by the recent study showing elevated levels of lead in the blood of children who live near the airport.

"It's concerning for my health, my kid's health, my grandchildren's health. I'm not too happy about it, knowing the study came out and we've been exposed to it and they didn't let us know earlier," he told KPIX 5.

Supervisors also voted to pursue converting the airport to lead-free fuel as soon as possible.

Released Aug. 3, the study was sponsored by the county and the California Department of Public Health and analyzed 17,000 blood samples taken from local children between 2011 and 2020. Researchers said the children's lead levels compared with those found in children who drank contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, at the height of that city's lead-poisoning crisis.

"Now we had the proof that the lead that was in the avgas, was causing damage and harming children in our community," Chavez told KPIX 5.

Lead is linked to elevated levels of lead in blood with impaired cognitive development, poor academic achievement, and many other health risks.

The county had already begun taking steps to close the airport in 2031, the soonest date allowed under the terms of the airport's current grants from the FAA.

"This is about environmental justice, public health and equity for the 52,000 residents living around Reid-Hillview Airport," said Supervisor Chavez.

Airport supporters had mixed reactions.

Pilot and aviation business owner Walt Gyger supports the ban on leaded fuel for airplanes because it also affects pilots and ground personnel.

"Removing the lead removes an argument the opponents had.  But their intent the close the airport goes way beyond just unleaded fuel," Gyger said.

But he doesn't want the airport to close, and predicts Federal Aviation Administration will fight hard to keep it open for pilot training and emergency operation as needed.

"It's going to be a long road, no mistake. The FAA will not allow the airport to close anytime soon," Gyger told KPIX 5

The FAA issued a statement saying "The FAA is committed to working with San Jose and Santa Clara County representatives to help the county meet its federal obligations while maintaining the use of the airport and addressing community environmental concerns."

Len Ramirez contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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