SMO foes find new tool in anti-airport battle

 - January 26, 2010, 10:06 AM
A study of pollution generated by aircraft at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) has galvanized residents around the airport who have been fighting for many years to curtail aircraft operations and possibly given them new ammunition in their battle.
At a community forum held January 11, a standing-room-only crowd listened to a panel of experts discussing the results of the pollution study. Los Angeles city councilmember Bill Rosendahl promised the crowd that it is time to take “radical action” against jets operating from the airport.

The study was not requested by a particular group. Suzanne Paulson, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Studies, decided to do the study to see what kind of emissions could be detected around the airport. She lives near the airport and occasionally smells jet fuel fumes, and she wondered if emissions from the airport could be measured and, if so, what these emissions might contain.

Many attendees at the meeting asserted that the emissions have ruined their enjoyment of their community, sending jet fuel fumes into their homes, forcing them to close windows and run air conditioners, driving them indoors from their yards, coating fruit trees and swimming pools with black soot and even, some accused, killing dogs and cats and causing various forms of cancer.

The ultra-fine particles detected in the study are not regulated and there are no government-established exposure standards, Paulson acknowledged.

The key finding from the study is that aircraft operating at Santa Monica Airport emit ultra-fine particles into the atmosphere, at average concentrations of 10 times the background level 100 meters downwind from the east end of the airport and 2.5 times background at 660 meters. The background emissions refer to pollution from traffic on nearby roads and freeways.

When jet aircraft take off, the peak 60-second average concentration of ultra-fine particles, particle-bound polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and black carbon were elevated by factors of 440, 90 and 100, respectively, compared with background concentrations, according to the study. Comparing fuel consumption versus particle emission rates, the study estimated that ultra-fine particle emissions from aircraft at Santa Monica are 16 to 100 times higher than those from light-duty vehicles and five to eight times higher than from heavy-duty vehicles. The UCLA study was conducted at four stationary sites on four days during 2008 for four to 6.5 hours per day, as well as three more days to confirm the elevated pollution measurements from the first four days.

A Call to Action

Bill Piazza of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety participated in a risk assessment of downwind pollution from Santa Monica Airport in 1999. At the community forum, Piazza told the audience, “This clearly shows that pollution is encroaching into your community.” He added, “The jury is still out as to what these particles do.” Piazza said that in 1999 when he conducted the risk assessment, there were only 5,000 jet operations at SMO, but that figure has now climbed to more than 20,000 per year. He hopes to conduct another risk assessment and find a way to fix the pollution problem. “We’re not here to eliminate the airport,” he said.

The airport is owned by the city of Santa Monica, but many of the affected citizens live across the line in Los Angeles and they don’t seem to appreciate any of the benefits of having a community airport where houses were built nearby to accommodate workers at the former Douglas Aircraft factory. “Most [of the neighbors] lived here before the growth of the damn jets,” said councilman Rosendahl. “There is no buffer zone like Van Nuys or LAX. This is unacceptable. No jets out of this airport. There’s enough scientific data. It’s time to take action!”

Martin Rubin, founder and director of the group Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, who lives across the line in Los Angeles near the airport, said, “I’m inclined to appreciate the economic boost, but not at the expense of the neighbors.” Rubin believes that the problem could be solved easily if the 30 or so jets per day that use Santa Monica would go to other airports. “It’s not that much of an inconvenience,” he said. “I just don’t get it. The rich walk all over us, yet they say they’re environmentalists.”

The FAA is aware that the need to integrate departing SMO traffic with LAX departures can cause ground delays. In December, the agency began a 180-day test of a new SMO departure procedure where IFR piston aircraft turn right to 250 degrees after takeoff, thus maintaining three-mile separation from LAX traffic and avoiding the need to hold departures at either airport.

Airport Value

NBAA is evaluating the results of the UCLA pollution study. “Airports in the Los Angeles basin are very important,” said Steve Brown, NBAA senior vice president, operations and administration. “Those airports support the economic vitality of the region, high-tech well paying jobs and the transportation needs of the region. We’re trying to be the best neighbors we can from an operational perspective, and we’ll continue doing that.”

At SMO, he added, long-standing collaborative procedures are in place to minimize aircraft operating time on the ground, such as jet pilots calling the tower before engine start and starting engines just before the expected departure time. Strict noise regulations forbid engine starts before 7 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on weekends. “We want to continue to collaborate with all those stakeholders,” he said. “If anything can be done, we’re certainly interested in working on that.”

Only one SMO defender, an owner of a piston airplane, stood up at the forum to express an opinion during the question and answer period. “I don’t like jets any more than you do,” he said.