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The EPA may finally reckon with aviation’s dirty secret: leaded fuel

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Optimistic that President Joe Biden's administration will take action to address the largest remaining source of airborne lead emissions in the country, a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations joined forces with California's Santa Clara County on Tuesday to press the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to classify leaded aviation gasoline air pollution as a danger to public health and the environment. An EPA-issued finding on this matter would allow the federal government to propose regulatory standards to address the harm caused by a highly toxic additive in aviation fuel.

Environmental advocates have petitioned the EPA to make this decision, known as an endangerment finding, for nearly two decades. They argue that the move is long overdue, given decades of scientific evidence demonstrating the harms of lead exposure, particularly for children.

"It's unconscionable to think about the hundreds of thousands of children that have been exposed to lead over all of these years from airport activity," said Jonathan Smith, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Earthjustice, which is representing Friends of the Earth, one of the original petitioners to the EPA, as well as Oregon Aviation Watch, the Montgomery-Gibbs Environmental Coalition, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Alaska Community Action on Toxics. (Disclosure: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist's editorial decisions.)

In a letter accompanying the petition to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, these organizations argued that leaded aviation gasoline emissions exacerbate environmental injustices faced by children of color who are already disproportionately burdened by chemical exposure. Black children are disproportionately burdened by lead exposure nationwide, and Latino children are disproportionately burdened in California. A majority of the 50 general aviation airports with the highest volume of lead emissions are located in communities of color, according to the letter. The Biden administration has pledged both to prioritize environmental justice issues and to reduce childhood lead exposure. The coalition hopes these commitments will make Regan receptive to their call for action.

"Lead poisoning is widely regarded as an environmental justice issue," said Smith. "So we do call on the Biden administration to recognize this … and prioritize it as the environmental justice issue that it is."

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA........

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