Lead emitted at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport is higher than previously calculated, new study finds

Lead emissions at Fort Lauderdale Executive airport are estimated to be significantly greater than previous calculations, according to a new study contracted by the airport last month. But the actual amount of lead in the air and in surrounding neighborhoods remains unknown.

The study, the results of which were discussed at a city commission meeting Tuesday, came after calls from nearby residents who cited a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation which found that South Florida’s small general aviation airports top the country in estimated lead emissions.

Piston-engine planes at these smaller airports burn leaded fuel and emit the toxin into the air, but the actual amount of lead has never been studied.

Fort Lauderdale Executive ranked 18th of over 5,000 airports nationwide based on 2020 calculations from the Environmental Protection Agency, emitting a little over 700 pounds of lead in a year.

The new study, which re-calculated emissions using more accurate operations data, found that, in 2022, the airport emitted over 1,000 pounds.

But the study, which took only a few weeks to complete, did not actually measure lead in the air at the airport or in surrounding neighborhoods, as residents living nearby had asked.

Instead, the consulting firm Harris Miller Miller and Hansen re-estimated how much of the toxin is emitted into the air using airport operations data with newer modeling tools and more accurate measures of operations than the EPA had used.

A follow-up to the study will measure lead in the soil, Rufus James, the airport’s director, told commissioners on Tuesday. He mentioned no plans for further studies.

The findings

Lead does not break down over time, meaning that once it enters the environment, it can stay there for decades.

Airborne lead is emitted from planes as particulate matter that settles and disperses over the ground “based on prevailing winds,” said Robert Mentzer, the principal consultant on the study, though most of it is emitted during pre-flight operations on the runway, takeoffs and landings, and remains on airport property.

In their report, the consultants calculated the amount of lead emitted below “mixing height,” the level at which the toxin would mix into the atmosphere and not affect levels on the ground, Mentzer said.

The consultants found that the airport emitted about half a ton, or about 1,040 pounds, of lead in 2022, broken down into about 87 pounds per month and three pounds per day. The majority of emissions occurred during the day, between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., when the airport is most active, peaking around noon.

A graph of estimated lead emissions during different times of day. (Courtesy/Harris Miller Miller and Hansen)
A graph of estimated lead emissions during different times of day. (Courtesy/Harris Miller Miller and Hansen)

But the concentrations “dissipate quickly with distance from piston engine aircraft exhaust,” said Mentzer, decreasing to below EPA standards about 50 meters from the plane, or about half a city block.

“So what you’re saying is that they dissipate; but it doesn’t disappear, it dissipates,” Mayor Dean Trantalis interjected. “Dissipate, disappear. It doesn’t disappear; the lead is still there.”

“Right, it dissipates and spreads out,” Mentzer said.

“Spreads out, contaminating a larger area than just in a concentrated area,” Trantalis replied.

“If you test the ground, there’s going to be small traces of lead levels everywhere,” Mentzer replied, “but it’s not exceeding any of the national or local standards.”

The lead issue near Fort Lauderdale Executive is also of particular concern because of the city’s plan to build a new water treatment plant next to the airport, 4 miles west of the existing plant, Fiveash.

“Once you wait until there’s lead in the water and you’ve identified that, then we’re stuck because that’s where the water is,” Commissioner Warren Sturman said.

The city already provides drinking water to about half of its residents from an existing wellfield at Prospect Lake, and the lead levels in the untreated water are below regulation standards, Dr. Nancy Gassman, the Assistant Director of the Public Works department, told commissioners Tuesday. The groundwater flows downstream from the well to the airport, not the other way around.

Other airports could produce more lead

The study also compared Fort Lauderdale Executive to South Florida’s other top lead-emitting airports in terms of its contributions to total statewide emissions, using the 2020 EPA data. North Perry, based in Pembroke Pines, ranked highest, contributing about 1.3% of the over 70,000 pounds of lead produced by the state of Florida, according to the study, followed by Fort Lauderdale Executive, which contributed 1 percent.

The EPA’s 2020 calculations had estimated North Perry to emit close to 1,000 pounds of lead, but it remains unclear whether the true, updated numbers are actually higher than that.

Broward County, which operates the airport, has never studied lead there, though residents and commissioners from the surrounding cities have urged the county to move quickly in doing so. Though the county is considering a budget item that will fund an environmental study at North Perry, it remains unclear when the study will take place and what it will measure.

Spokespeople for the airport did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

‘Conjecture and speculation’

Though Fort Lauderdale Executive was quick to act, some concerned residents who had asked for the study were not assuaged by its findings.

Homeowners at the Lofts of Palm Aire, which neighbors Fort Lauderdale Executive, voiced concerns in public comments Tuesday, disappointed that the city hadn’t actually measured lead in the air or in the communities surrounding the airport.

“It’s hard for me to look at the information you were giving today when it’s conjecture and speculation and no concrete evidence,” said Tom Quinn, a former pilot and member of the Lofts of Palm Aire HOA board. “If you can’t feel, taste and touch it, what are you talking about?”

The airport is working to contract new consultants to measure lead in the soil, airport director James said.

Commissioner John Herbst, whose district includes the airport and the water treatment plant, said that “the soil testing component is really going to be the most telling one,” concerned about children who play nearby.

Other airports that performed soil testing did not find elevated lead levels, though that doesn’t mean lead is not affecting surrounding communities. County commissioners banned leaded fuel at Reid-Hillview in San Jose, California, after a multi-year study that found children living near the airport had higher concentrations of lead in their blood.

But a soil study later performed at the airport did not find levels that exceeded regulations, The Mercury News reported.

Reid-Hillview produces less lead than both North Perry and Fort Lauderdale Executive, according to the EPA data.

The California airport came up at Tuesday’s meeting, but neither James nor the city commissioners mentioned contracting a similar study to the one performed there.

Michael Ray, another resident of The Lofts of Palm Aire, said that, regardless of what studies are done, the city should focus on obtaining unleaded fuel, which is now available for all piston-engine planes. The Federal Aviation Administration has a plan to transition all aircraft to unleaded fuel by 2030.

“Don’t wait until 2030 when the FAA decides to finally get around to it,” Ray said. “Because frankly, myself and all the other residents I know, we don’t want to be poisoned for another seven years, and we elected you to represent us and take care of us. So we hope you will take this serious and look into it further, as I have the last few weeks.”

James said that transitioning to unleaded fuel before 2030 would rely on the businesses providing fuel at the airport and the pilots buying it.

“If none of their customers are asking for the unleaded fuel,” he said, “then they’re not just going to go out and buy a truck that’s specifically for unleaded fuel and just have it sit there.”

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