Pilots fly the last frontier for leaded gas

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The small, piston-engine airplanes at Merrill Field roar to full throttle as they reach the main runway, many of them bound for remote Arctic towns with people and precious supplies.

Pilots rev up their engines at the beginning of the airstrip to make sure they'll have enough power to climb above the snow-frosted mountains that ring Alaska's largest city. And that makes this spot ground zero for an environmental challenge that most people thought was resolved decades ago.

The reason is the blend of aviation fuel, known as avgas, that these airplanes must burn instead of jet fuel to keep their propellers spinning. It was once the fuel of choice for airliners and World War II-era fighter planes, but avgas is now a boutique product, making up just a tenth of 1 percent of all liquid fuel sold in the United States.

And like many of the planes that use it, the blue-tinted, sweet-smelling fuel is a historical relic -- the last type of leaded gasoline on the U.S. market.

For that reason, avgas is now drawing scrutiny from U.S. EPA, which set a stricter air quality standard for lead in 2008 and then agreed to study whether the lead in avgas is harming people.

EPA is paying for air quality monitors that will start gathering data on lead pollution later this year at Merrill Field and 14 other U.S. airports. Health officials in Anchorage had not measured the amount of lead in the air since 1987, when the phaseout of leaded gasoline was almost complete, said Steve Morris, the manager of the city's air quality program.

"I had thought it was a solved problem," Morris said in an interview, as airplanes taxied to the runway behind him and a bright orange wind sock fluttered on the wooden platform being built for the new monitor.

Lead was first added to gasoline in the early 1920s to boost performance and stop explosive malfunctions, called "knocking," that can make an engine break down. But in exchange for a higher octane number at the pump, millions of children were exposed to a poison that caused developmental problems and robbed them of IQ points.

More lead was pumped into the air as cars, trucks and airplanes spread across America. By the late 1970s, it was estimated that 78 percent of American children had elevated levels of the heavy metal in their blood.

But in the years after Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the government cracked down on lead, the total amount of lead released into the air dropped by 99 percent and the share of American children with elevated levels of lead in their blood fell into the low single digits. It was "one of the great environmental achievements of all time," former EPA Administrator Carol Browner declared in 1996, when the agency announced that leaded gasoline was off the market for good.


But in many places, topsoil is still tainted by lead that fell to earth over the decades. And though it has been 15 years since the switch to unleaded gasoline, leaded aviation fuel is still up in the air with no obvious replacement in sight.

Now that other sources have been cleaned up, the 2 grams of lead added to every gallon of avgas are responsible for just under half the lead that is released into the air Americans breathe, according to EPA estimates. The agency is taking a fresh look at lead emissions, which has sown fears in Alaska that avgas could soon be forced off the market.

Many pilots here, wary of government rules to begin with, are worried the Obama administration will ban a fuel that links Alaska's far-flung villages to the outside world.

While the issue has gone largely unnoticed inside the Beltway, it has caught the attention of Gov. Sean Parnell (R) and the three members of Alaska's delegation on Capitol Hill. All of them have urged EPA not to ban avgas.

"Such a rule would turn thousands of piston-engine aircraft in Alaska into scrap, render billions of dollars invested over decades in airport infrastructure useless, devastate our economy, destroy thousands of jobs, and strand hundreds of Alaskan communities and their residents," Parnell wrote in a letter to EPA last year. "It would truly be a disaster."

Prodded by a lawsuit from the environmental group Friends of the Earth, EPA said last year that it will use new monitoring data to decide whether avgas is exposing people to dangerous amounts of lead. Scientists have concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, but EPA says it isn't sure whether the avgas emissions are a health threat on their own.

The monitoring equipment that will soon start sniffing the air at Merrill Field could help find out.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has created a task force to plan for a possible transition, but it hasn't yet found a good replacement for avgas. Without a substitute that packs the same power at a comparable price, pilots that rely on avgas would need to install new engines or stop using airplanes -- antiques and workhorses alike -- that can cost millions to replace.

Paul Bertorelli, a longtime flying buff and editor of the aviation news website AVweb, said the future of leaded avgas has been uncertain for a long time, but pilots from around the country have been calling him since the reviews started. They ask whether it is time to get rid of their piston-engine planes.

He's not sure what to tell them.

"Imagine if you went to the dealership to buy a car, and the dealer said, 'We can sell you gas for this now, but we can't promise you it will be out there three years from now,'" Bertorelli said. "What would you say?"

'Backbone of the state'

In areas of Alaska that are disconnected from the national road system -- areas that are known, somewhat affectionately, as "the bush" -- piston-powered planes are used for almost everything: bringing the mail, carrying the sick to hospitals, delivering food.

Pilots in Alaska use more than one-third of the roughly 180 million gallons of leaded avgas that are burned nationwide each year, a share that is more than 150 times as large as Alaska's tiny slice of the U.S. population.

There are plenty of planes that fly without leaded fuel, but the ones that use avgas have become the pickup trucks of Alaska for a reason, said Joy Journeay, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association. It's because they can carry cargo to even the roughest landing strips, and do it cheaply in a place where a gallon of milk can already cost $10 or more.

"They're the backbone of the state," Journeay said in an interview. "We have no objections to keeping lead out of the environment. We're not saying 'to hell with being clean and safe and pure,' but government should not regulate out of existence something that's in use until they have an answer for how they're going to do it."

Among the pilots' advocates on Capitol Hill is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a veteran and vocal critic of EPA rules. Young knows the issue well -- he burns through much of his annual travel budget chartering small planes to reach constituents in remote villages and used to own a piston-powered Piper Navajo himself, he said in an interview.

In some circles in fiercely independent Alaska, aviators share a feeling that bureaucrats want to take away the fuel just because a few environmentalists from the lower 48 states complained. Young is inclined to agree.

"Keep in mind, this whole idea is in response to a petition filed by an extreme environmental group called 'Friends of the Earth,'" he wrote to EPA last year, after the agency said it would take a closer look at leaded fuel. "Like 'Greenpeace' and 'Defenders of Wildlife', Friends of the Earth is no friend of mine and they're certainly no friend of Alaska."

Some critics of EPA's review say that taking the lead out of avgas would make airplanes less reliable and more costly, but the environmentalists seeking a new fuel say people made the same claims when leaded gasoline was phased out. New technology won out, and this time shouldn't be any different, said Pam Miller, director of Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

People in the rural Alaskan villages where airplanes are the lifeline to the outside world could also be more easily exposed to lead, because many of the airstrips are located particularly close to homes and schools, Miller said.

"Health issues should prompt innovation, and lead is such a serious health problem," she said.

Crying wolf?

But the prospect of a ban worries companies like Fairbanks-based Everts Air, which ferries supplies to the far reaches of Alaska.

With a fleet of 14 piston-powered planes that require avgas, including nine massive DC-6 airliners that date back to the years after World War II, the company is the nation's largest user of leaded fuel, despite its small size.

If Everts Air could not use avgas, it would need to switch over to planes that use jet fuel, said Robert Ragar, who manages contracts and hazardous waste for the company. Right now, Everts Air charges roughly $1 per pound to ship cargo, but the need to buy new aircraft would easily double or triple that price, he said.

Ragar, a 26-year veteran of Alaska's aviation industry, had always known that avgas contained lead, but he assumed it was not a health risk because regulators let it stay on the market.

When it came out that EPA was going to be looking at the risks of airplane fuel, it worried Ragar, who works near airplane exhaust pipes and handles lead bullets at the firing range. If any adult would be in danger, he said, it would be him.

So Ragar had his whole family tested using the guidelines put out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The tests didn't detect lead in their blood, he said.

"You can't get any more exposed than I am, and my kids grew up around it their entire lives," Ragar said. "I believe that people are crying wolf where there's no wolf."

For a long time, the government was content to spare avgas -- as well as racing fuel, which also used to contain lead -- from its new rules. More than three-quarters of the 220,000 tons of lead that were released into the air in 1970 came from the tailpipes of ordinary cars and trucks, with most of the rest coming from lead smelters and other industrial plants.

Stock cars on the NASCAR circuit used the leaded stuff until 2008, when the racing league switched to a newly customized blend of high-octane gasoline. Meanwhile, the search for an avgas replacement continued for decades in fits and starts, but the aviation sector wasn't being pushed that hard, said Bertorelli, the editor of the aviation website.

"EPA just kept saying, 'We'll give you a bye on it -- just let us know when you have a replacement,'" he said. "But with no pressure on it, guess what? Thirty years later, there's still no replacement."

Even if some pilots are angry at EPA and the environmentalists who are pushing for action on avgas, Ragar said the agency's actions so far suggest it is searching for the facts rather than trying to ban the fuel.

He said he would accept a steady phaseout of the fuel if there is strong science behind it, but not without sadness at the fact that some antique planes would probably be grounded forever.

"I would like to see our history continue to fly," he said.

The last 1 percent

Much more than before, experts say, EPA is facing a tough scientific challenge. There was clear proof the fumes from cars and trucks were poisoning children, but the agency must now decide whether it's worth keeping the last bit of lead out of the air.

Lead is often described today as a conquered environmental foe of the past, like the banned pesticide DDT or the hole in the ozone layer. Bald eagles and other endangered birds have started to recover since DDT was banned, while the hole in the ozone layer has stopped growing under an international treaty that requires the world to phase out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals.

So too, the switch to unleaded gas is leaving the public memory, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a March interview with Audubon magazine. Most Americans "either have never known or have forgotten" how harmful gasoline fumes were, she said.

But back in the 1970s and 1980s, few people seriously disputed the need to get rid of leaded gas, said William Ruckelshaus, who was named EPA's first administrator by President Nixon and returned to the post under President Reagan.

"The evidence of lead's adverse health effects was overwhelming," Ruckelshaus said in an interview with Greenwire. There was some pushback from refiners and the auto industry, he added, but "it seemed to me that the opposition to doing it was finally blown away by the overwhelming nature of the evidence."

Gone are the days when American rivers caught fire and the smog was so thick that people couldn't see across city streets, he said. In most parts of the United States, the air and water is cleaner than it has been in decades. With lead, as with other kinds of pollution, EPA is now trying to come to terms with health risks that are much less clear-cut than they used to be.

"The less you have of any toxic substance, the less the risk," Ruckelshaus said. "Even though the remaining 1 percent can create some risk, it's nothing like it had been in the past."

The monitors at Merrill Field and the other 14 airports will be collecting data for at least a year to help EPA scientists figure out whether fumes from airplanes are affecting Americans, especially the 16 million of them who live within a kilometer of an airport. The key question is whether airplanes are causing these areas to flunk the stricter air quality standards that were put in place at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration.

The nationwide limit on lead pollution now stands at 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over three months -- a level that is 10 times lower than the previous standard. Monitors at airstrips such as Buttonville Municipal Airport in Toronto have briefly detected higher concentrations of lead in the past but never for such a long period of time.

But there are hints that children are being exposed to the airplane emissions, if slightly. For families living near airports, avgas could be responsible for 2 to 4 percent of the lead found in children's blood, according to a study by Duke University researchers that was published this July in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

That's also a possibility at Merrill Field, which is a couple of miles east of downtown Anchorage in the neighborhood of Airport Heights. Morris, the manager of Anchorage's air quality program, noted that one of the airport's runways is a few hundred feet away from Airport Heights Elementary School, which runs from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Back in 1984, while leaded gas was being phased out, Anchorage had a peak quarterly reading of 1.4 micrograms per cubic meter near a major roadway in Anchorage, Morris said. He said he has no idea what the monitor will find when it gathers data at Merrill Field.

Marcie Keever, legal director at Friends of the Earth, said it is important to crack down on emissions from airplanes because scientists still haven't found a level of lead that is safe for children. Any lead exposure presents a risk, she said.

"This is that one loophole that needs to be closed," she said during a recent interview. "The primary reason for this is the significant impact to public health. While I understand that some people think this is not a problem, all evidence, unfortunately, is to the contrary."

All because of aircraft

If the administration decides to get rid of leaded avgas, critics say, it could pay a political price in Alaska, where it's a virtual requirement that lawmakers know aviation issues well.

Take Sen. Mark Begich, a first-term Democrat who is co-chairman of the general aviation caucus in the upper chamber. His father -- former Rep. Nick Begich, a Democrat whose seat has been held by Young ever since -- was a pilot himself, disappearing while flying over Alaska in a small propeller plane almost 40 years ago. The plane was never found.

His son has urged EPA not to ban leaded avgas, saying the benefits of the fuel outweigh any health risks. When Begich speaks with constituents, they tell him they are worried about an avgas ban -- not about lead poisoning, he told Greenwire.

If lead is going to be removed from aviation fuel, it should be done gradually to avoid slamming Alaska's economy, he said. When leaded gasoline was taken off the market, oil companies and carmakers were given 20 years to finish cleaning it up.

"We should have the same kind of transition period," Begich said. "If the EPA is insistent on an overnight transition, that will be damaging to Alaska's economy. It will be the wrong step, and we'll oppose it."

Young used to fly piston-powered airplanes himself, even though he was not registered as a pilot, the Alaska Dispatch quoted him saying at the Alaska Air Carriers Association awards dinner last year. One time, while taking off from a gravel runway on a hot summer day, Young struck a tree and wrecked his plane. After that, he gave up flying, he told the crowd.

And it was inside a piston-powered airplane that Begich's predecessor and the most legendary lawmaker in Alaska history -- former Republican Sen. Ted Stevens -- died last summer on a remote hillside in southwestern Alaska. The plane, a DeHavilland capable of landing on water, crashed with Stevens and several others aboard while they were going to fish for silver salmon.

In the rugged wide-open spaces of Alaska, those risks are a price that people pay because of the boost to their standard of living, argue people who are worried about an avgas ban. That's especially true in the smallest, most remote towns.

If new rules make it more expensive to fly in Alaska, some remote villages will empty out, said Young, who started his political career in 1960 as mayor of Fort Yukon. Even today, getting to that town of 600 people requires an hourlong flight from Fairbanks, the nearest city on the road system.

"Some people say, 'Well, what did you do before the airplanes arrived?'" Young said during a recent interview. "The truth of the matter is, we used boats. We got mail by dog team. The food was brought in the summer and stored all winter long. Medical supplies were nonexistent. The death rate was huge. The mortality of infants was really large -- we just lost them. All that has changed because of aircraft."

Most of the passenger flights to Fort Yukon today are flown by turbine-engine planes, which use jet fuel rather than leaded avgas.

But airlines will need to raise their prices if they have to upgrade or replace the planes that do use avgas, said Bill Miller, director of operations at Wright Air Service in Fairbanks.

Wright Air, which owns eight piston-engine airplanes worth about $100,000 apiece, would need to replace them with $1 million helicopters or new airplanes at $1.5 million each. The added costs would make charter flights for mining companies and government agencies such as the National Park Service more expensive, Miller said.

Young has rarely been shy about his distaste for environmental rules. But of all the regulations being considered at EPA right now, there is probably none more important to Alaska than the review of leaded aviation fuel, he said.

"Aircraft have done marvelous things for us," Young told Greenwire, "and I think it's wrong for any agency that lives in Washington, D.C., to come up with a stupid regulation where there's no science."

Search for a new fuel

When lead was first added to gasoline in the early 1920s, one industry executive hailed it as a "gift of God." As it turned out, the additive was hugely destructive, but its unique qualities have proven remarkably difficult to replace in airplane fuel.

The industry has done preliminary tests on about 200 gasoline additives over the past few decades, but none of them could protect engines as well as lead, said Rob Hackman, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Forty-five fuels were close enough to go to full-engine tests, but they didn't work out either.

Theoretically, most of the piston-powered planes that use leaded fuel could run on ordinary gasoline, but there is a catch: They can't handle the ethanol that is often added to it.

Even without ethanol, premium gasoline is also a little less powerful -- it has an octane rating of 93 compared to 100 for avgas. And it probably wouldn't work for airplanes with radial engines, such as the massive DC-6's that Everts uses to haul fuel.

At the moment, there are two main specialty fuels under development that are being touted as "drop-in" replacements for avgas. One of them, from Swift Enterprises Ltd. of West Lafayette, Ind., can be made from biomass, natural gas or oil. The other, from General Aviation Modifications Inc. in Ada, Okla., is based on petroleum and uses a set of additives to emulate the effect of lead.

The main concern about these new fuels is cost. But if they work as hoped, nearly everybody would be able to use them without making changes to their equipment, Hackman said.

His trade group has also proposed replacing the current blend of avgas, called "100 low lead," with a stopgap blend called "100 very low lead." It would cut the maximum lead content by about 19 percent without flunking any of the technical requirements for avgas.

But there's a growing recognition that avgas will go unleaded sooner or later, in part because the declining use of piston-powered planes is drying up demand for the specialty fuel.

There is also only one remaining manufacturer of the tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) additive for the fuel. It hasn't gone unnoticed that the U.K.-based company emerged from bankruptcy not too long ago.

"We are working toward an unleaded fuel for the future. That is the goal," Hackman said. "Regardless of whether it is an environmental issue or it isn't ... we have reasons that this industry really needs to consider its alternatives."

There are other reasons to switch fuels, said Joel Caldwell, director of business development at Grant Aviation in Anchorage.

Avgas is more expensive than ordinary gasoline, to start, and many of the older planes that burn it could save more money if their engines were upgraded to be more like souped-up car engines, Caldwell said. One switch alone -- replacing older devices called "magnetos" with electronic ignitions used in modern cars -- would allow Grant's planes to burn 5 or 6 fewer gallons of fuel for every hour in the air, he said.

At a rate of 18 gallons of avgas per hour and an average airspeed of about 180 miles per hour, that's the equivalent of moving fuel efficiency from 10 miles per gallon to 14 -- an improvement that would also save money.

Grant's planes could be retrofitted during their usual upgrade cycles with engines that run on ethanol-free gasoline, said James Miller, the company's chief pilot. But there are a number of reasons companies aren't already moving that way, he said, chief among them the challenge of getting FAA to approve certificates for new types of engines.

Other pilots are more pessimistic. But there's no reason the problem couldn't be solved, Miller said. He turned to a red, road-worn Subaru with small patches of rust creeping in from the edges of its hood.

Had it been on the road 30 years ago, the car would had released lead from its tailpipe. Today, because of updated engine technology and reformulated fuel, it doesn't. Ordinary cars kept getting more efficient. The air kept getting cleaner.

"The technology exists. It's right there," Miller said, pointing to the Subaru.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines