A small group of area residents and community leaders held a protest outside Whiteman Airport in Pacoima calling for its closure, claiming small plane emissions cause community health issues. The group organized in anticipation of a meeting of the LA County Board of Supervisors, which on Tuesday, Nov. 7, unanimously approved a motion to begin the process toward restricting the sale of leaded fuel at Whiteman.
Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, who represents the Third District, presented the motion – dubbed “Reimagining Whiteman Airport” – which directs the Department of Public Works to develop a plan within 90 days aimed at increasing the availability and use of unleaded aviation fuel at the airport and eventually phase out the sale of leaded fuel, which is typically used by the single-piston engine aircraft that commonly utilize Whiteman.
The motion also calls for a curfew at Whiteman “to improve the neighborhood quality of life.” It also directs the Department of Public Health to evaluate existing data of lead levels from blood testing that has been conducted on area residents, and from air quality monitoring in the area surrounding the airport for use in future recommendations to the California Department of Public Health regarding ambient lead levels in the community.
“Residents of Pacoima deserve a good quality of life in their neighborhood, including clean air,” said Horvath. “We can’t wait for the aviation industry and federal regulation to take necessary steps to better protect community health today when we know leaded aviation fuel is unquestionably harmful.”
Matthew Stone, a licensed noncommercial pilot who routinely uses Whiteman Airport, said he was disappointed the Board approved the motion, which he believes “advances many faulty and wasteful ideas.”
“The [motion] calls for testing with parameters that are prone to manipulation … and unlikely to solve actual lead exposure occurring in the area,” claimed Stone, who attended the Nov. 7 meeting. “Although Pacoima Beautiful and Monica Rodriguez insisted in their comments [at the meeting] that they were acting at the behest of the community, this is simply not true. Most public comments heard over the last few years, including on Pacoima Beautiful’s own social media pages, show their anti-Whiteman politics are in defiance of what most Angelenos want.”
Maria Salgado, who lives a block from the airport, said she wants to be able to walk outside without worrying about any potential long-term consequences of lead emissions in the air.
“I’ve been here in Pacoima since 2016 and I worry about the noise pollution, and being outside with all the air pollution,” she told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol during the demonstration. “I think there’s a complete disregard for the residents; we really haven’t been considered when it comes to the operations of the airport, but we’re really being impacted every day.”
Salgado and others supporting the closure of Whiteman cite recent findings released in October by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about potential health dangers of leaded fuel. The EPA report indicates an “endangerment finding” for leaded aviation fuel, stating that “lead air pollution may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health and welfare.”
Bill Berle, an aircraft owner, longtime tenant at Whiteman and volunteer for a non-profit organization that runs STEM education programs for youth at the airport, said he believes the Board motion was unnecessary because there is already an ongoing effort underway in the aviation community to diminish the use of leaded fuel.
“In recent years, there has been quite a bit of investigation and a very sincere, significant effort to develop and be able to use fuels that do not have lead,” explained Berle. Notably, he points out, standard unleaded automotive fuel – excluding the addition of ethanol – can “safely be used in a large percentage of light aircraft with proper FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] approvals.”
“From a mechanical standpoint, unleaded fuel can be used in the vast majority of aircraft at Whiteman airport, particularly the majority of the ones doing repetitive operations,” said Berle. He said those aircraft are used for flight training, youth programs, and “flying around for fun.”
For the remaining percentage of small aircraft that can’t utilize automotive unleaded fuel – which Berle estimates to be between 20% to 25% – alternative fuels “are being engineered,” he said.
Pacoima Beautiful, a local organization with strong political ties, has led the charge to close Whiteman, but leaders have not said what they foresee to replace the airport. Residents living in the densely populated area have voiced concern that once Whiteman is shut down, developers will bring in a housing project or a big box project that may not be desired by the community.
On the Facebook page of the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol, many community members have voiced support for the airport, and some have even expressed skepticism about the true motivation behind calling for its removal.
“The airport is a staple and part of what makes Pacoima, Pacoima!” wrote Larry Borbon.
“This subject has come up a few times among my friends. We feel that they want to get rid of the airport to put up apartments and stores,” wrote Maryann Mendez. “There’s probably backdoor politics going on to get it shut. I remember when San Fernando had the most beautiful baseball field. … What’s there now? Buildings. Factories. … Let the airport be.”
Teodora Reyes, a Pacoima resident and policy associate with Pacoima Beautiful, said they are calling for the airport to be shut down “to protect children and their families” not only due to concerns about lead emissions, but also due to safety considerations stemming from recent airplane crashes – 13 over the past decade, according to reports – that have occurred at or near Whiteman.
“This [current] campaign started in November of 2020, when an airplane crashed in front of a home – that was about public safety – and it’s a continued fight now with public health,” she said. “We appreciate the step [being taken], to be able to be heard. For the past three years, we’ve asked for this. So this is a very important day for us.”
LA City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez (7th District), said she believes the airport should be closed for several reasons – primarily due to community health concerns related to lead emissions and public safety issues stemming from a history of accidents. But, for the time being, she said that implementing curfews at Whiteman will be beneficial for the surrounding area.
“I’m looking forward to the immediate implementation of curfews [to] immediately address some of the noise pollution associated with the operation of the airport,” Rodriguez told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol following the Pacoima protest and press conference.
Rodriguez stressed that economic considerations are an important component as well.
“For the 184 acres of this property, it only generates, at best, two jobs per acre,” said Rodriguez. “Our community deserves far greater economic benefit than that. It’s insufficient and woefully underserving the needs of our neighborhoods.”