close
close

California mom can tip the balance in fuel battle

In all the gnashing of teeth about the difficult path to universal unleaded aviation gasoline, there is an underlying theme that I have been trying to convey that tends to be drowned out by the technical and political issues of the topic.

The dizzyingly complex details of gasoline chemistry and the baffling political battle over the dark horse, GAMI’s G100UL, which is theoretically the undisputed leader in the race for a universal replacement for the 100LL, consume us. Although it has been approved for use in virtually all gasoline-powered aircraft registered in the US (helicopters will be available soon) through STC, GAMI’s refusal to send the fuel to ASTM International for testing and apparent refusal of the transportation and fuel dispensing industry to consider putting fuel in their tanks, pipes and trucks without it has led to a frustrating impasse.

The FAA and EPA have reached an agreement that gives aviation until 2030 to find a new fuel, and it seems that most players are perfectly comfortable stretching that deadline until the last minute. It seems to me that we could surpass that deadline in a few years if something gave way in the impasse over the G100UL. I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success depending on who I talk to, to unravel the business, regulatory and personal issues getting in the way, but it seems that way for now.

The other two fuels in the running, Swift Fuels 100R and VP Aviation, are undergoing extensive testing and approvals by both the FAA and ASTM and it looks like it will take at least 18 months. Meanwhile, there are more than a million gallons of G100UL at a Vitol Aviation refinery that the company says is ready to begin the process of eliminating lead emissions from airplanes.

We in aviation tend to see this as an interesting fight between the fuel establishment and some newcomers to the industry that is of no consequence since 100LL is still abundant everywhere we are used to finding it. In fact, that is a core principle of the Eliminate Lead Emissions from Aviation Gasoline group: maintaining a ready supply of 100 LL while resolving all issues related to the transition.

And that’s where Lori Shepler comes into the picture. A couple of years ago, she dropped her twins, now seven years old, at a school next to the Long Beach airport with more trepidation than usual about the parental nervousness that accompanies that milestone. When her daughter (the other twin is a boy) was a baby, she had cancer surgery and received chemotherapy. The family just celebrated five years in remission.

Meanwhile, the flight schools lining the ramps of Long Beach were responding to the massive increase in demand for flight training, and she says on a typical day there is a landing and takeoff about every minute during school hours. Not long after that first day of school, Shepler was horrified to discover that lead was coming out of her exhaust pipes.

The attitude of some in aviation is that the amount of lead released by GA is so small, relatively speaking, that there is no real health hazard. That’s not to say there isn’t support for removing lead from avgas, but we are more concerned about the effect on valve seats and other engine components than the known effects of lead on human health.

For Shepler, airplanes were no longer a mere annoyance. They became poison casters releasing toxins onto a girl who had already been through a lot. Going to school was a huge victory and now it became, in Schepler’s mind, an existential threat.

At this point, it’s fair to ask why he didn’t just change schools, but there is an ex and a family court judge involved who agree that lead emissions are not a threat that warrants changing schools. Shepler will fight that position in court in June.

Meanwhile, as Shepler investigated further and called the main players in the current impasse, she became more frustrated and is now enraged that the solution to her problem lies in the Vitol refinery instead of flowing from the Long Beach pumps. .

“It’s concerning that he’s being detained,” said Schepler, whose calm and respectful demeanor has already caused some to underestimate her. One of the fuel industry leaders she spoke to initially dismissed her as a “housewife,” but she no longer does. Shepler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Los Angeles Times photojournalist and is using all her skills and contacts to fight this battle.

To that end, he is helping to organize a protest next Thursday (May 16) to raise awareness about the lead problem. There will also be other groups more concerned about noise. Shepler has had some success in getting local media interested in the issue in recent years. Ironically, the LA Times has not yet been successful, but the opposition Orange County Register played a major role, as did smaller publications in the immediate area.

But among the media expected to attend Thursday’s protest is the local CBS affiliate. Depending on what kind of news turns out to be on Thursday, the story could reach beyond Los Angeles (and could wake up the Times, too). Shepler has witnessed the astonishment many people express when they learn that lead is still used in fuel.

The knowledge is being used by groups that are less concerned about the health effects of lead than about the noise they endure or the profits they are losing because of their local airports. Lead emissions are now a regular part of the argument of anti-airport groups, and that is helping to spread awareness. Shepler is trying to get one of the national news magazine programs interested in the story.

Meanwhile, she continues to attack her side of the battle with calm logic. She has taken soil samples near the airport and they all have lead. Some are right at the threshold where the EPA is starting to take notice. She continues to stay in touch with other groups that have formed in other areas of California that are fighting their own regional efforts and that has resulted in a bill moving through the legislature that would ban leaded avgas.

But the real focus of what is happening in California lies with the Center for Environmental Health. As we have reported, CEH has a consent agreement that obligates the several dozen FBOs that are signatories to begin offering a lower lead alternative to 100LL as soon as it is “commercially available.” CEH may have a big influence on whether G100UL is defined that way, but so far it has not commented publicly on what, if anything, it intends to do. By the way, I’m a little upset because Shepler can call and talk to CEH and their attorneys at will, but they’ve ignored me so far. She offered to speak for me. She’s a housewife, huh?

Shepler, of course, doesn’t care who wins the fuel battle, who makes the money, or how it all plays out. He simply knows that when any type of unleaded fuel enters Long Beach’s tanks, one of his biggest concerns and source of family conflict simply disappears. But he also doesn’t want others to worry when the solution seems so simple.

“I just want the track to finish,” he said. “I think this is something important.”