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Coloradans are on edge about airport noise and pollution. Lawmakers want to help

A small white airplane gets towed with mountains in the distance.
Scott Franz
A plane is towed at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Broomfield on Oct. 4, 2023, after airport leadership announced a plan to phase out the use of leaded fuel. State lawmakers are proposing to charge an impact fee on leaded fuel sales at airports to help fund and speed up efforts to switch to unleaded fuel.

State lawmakers have introduced a bill aiming to protect residents from noise and potential lead exposure at Colorado's growing general aviation airports.

Rapid growth at several airports, including Rocky Mountain Metropolitan in northern Colorado, has sparked lawsuits, thousands of noise complaints and health concerns about airborne lead pollution in neighboring communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently declared the ongoing use of leaded fuel by smaller, piston-engine aircraft a public health threat. The finding followed a study that determined children living near a California airport had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

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“The science is clear: Exposure to lead can cause irreversible and lifelong health effects in children,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement in October. “Aircraft that use leaded fuel are the dominant source of lead emissions in our air.”

Colorado lawmakers are hoping their bill will expedite a transition to unleaded fuel around the state by offering tax credits and financial incentives to pilots and airports making the switch.

The bill would start charging an impact fee of up to 50 cents per gallon on leaded fuel sales beginning in September. Airports could then use that money to pay for fuel tanks and other infrastructure needed to offer an unleaded alternative.

Some airports, including Rocky Mountain Metropolitan, have already announced plans to transition away from leaded fuel before the federal goal to do so by 2030.

Leaders in the state's aviation industry have said that while they support community members' calls to stop using leaded fuel, there have been hurdles in the way, including financial costs and impediments to securing supply of a lead-free fuel alternative that's safe for plane engines.

Colorado’s bill would also require the state health department to install noise monitors at some airports and periodically do blood tests for lead for residents and children living near the runways.

Finally, the bill would aim to eventually stop the state from directing grant funds toward busy regional airports that have not put in place voluntary noise reduction measures and plans to switch to unleaded fuel.

“I share the concerns of my residents about the noise and the lead in our community and the impact that it's having on folks' mental health and physical health,” State Rep. Kyle Brown, D-Louisville, told KUNC in October when he started working on the bill.

Noelle Roni sits at a table in a home pointing to images printed on a piece of paper.
Scott Franz
Noelle Roni of Superior points to a visual she made showing flight traffic over her home on a Saturday afternoon in February. Roni is one of several residents to raise concerns about lead exposure at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport in Broomfield.

Last fall, Brown and other Front Range lawmakers attended a town hall in Superior where hundreds of residents packed a community center to share their concerns about airport impacts.

“In particular, we heard stories from pregnant women and parents who were concerned because they had tested for lead in their blood and indicated that their lead levels were higher than they should be,” Brown said. “People are scared about lead. People are concerned about noise. And we all know there is no safe level of lead."

The bill is expected to face resistance from some members of the state’s aviation industry. Last week, the Colorado Pilots Association raised concerns about a draft of the bill in its newsletter titled "Things you should know this week."

The email newsletter said the bill "could very negatively impact General Aviation in Colorado" and that the Colorado Aviation Business Association was “taking the lead on educating the legislative body on why they should oppose this bill.”

A spokesperson for the Colorado Aviation Business Association did not immediately return a message from KUNC seeking comment on Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, residents who have spent years raising concerns about airplane noise and air pollution are praising the state’s proposal.

Lafayette resident Bri Lehman leads a group called Save Our Skies that represents people who want airports to reduce noise and environmental impacts.

“We might be one of the first states to actually take this on as a statewide issue and say we acknowledge that lead from aviation fuel is harmful,” Lehman said. “Nobody's trying to shut down the airports and nobody's trying to take away anybody's freedom to fly. I just think we're asking for some very basic and reasonable accommodations, and that their freedom to fly doesn't create lifelong learning disabilities for kids who are under that flight path.”

The bill would also give residents like Lehman a bigger say in state aviation decisions by adding two seats on the Colorado Aeronautical Board, which helps oversee the state’s aviation development projects and funding.

The seats would be reserved for residents in communities affected by traffic at general aviation or commercial airports. The bill would also tweak the responsibilities of the state board to also “evaluate, prevent, and mitigate the adverse impacts of aircraft noise and the use of leaded aviation gasoline…on public health, safety and welfare.”

The first public hearing for the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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