Aviation regulators will begin testing, as soon as next year, unleaded substitutes for aviation gasoline that remains the largest source of U.S. airborne lead.
The Federal Aviation Administration invited fuel manufacturers to submit proposals for unleaded formulations, it said in a statement posted on its website today. The agency pledged last year to find a replacement by 2018 for leaded aviation gasoline, which has been linked in health studies to elevated levels of the toxic metal in children who live near general-aviation airports.
“We need to work with industry to develop an unleaded fuel that advances aviation safety and improves the environment,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the statement.
Lead was banned 17 years ago in gasoline for motor vehicles because of its health risks. It remains in the high-octane fuel that powers most piston-engine airplanes used by private pilots, and accounted for 56.9 percent of U.S. lead emissions in 2008, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Friends of the Earth, an environmental group based in San Francisco and Washington, filed suit last year seeking to force the U.S. government to regulate leaded fuel.
The agency, while deserving praise for moving ahead, could do more to encourage pilots to use existing unleaded aviation fuels, Marcie Keever, the group’s West Coast legal director, said in an interview.
“Any unleaded fuel should be encouraged,” Keever said. More than 80 percent of piston-powered planes can use high-octane automotive gasoline, she said. The group has been pushing the EPA, which shares regulation over aviation fuel with the FAA, to act since 2003.
The FAA said fuel producers can submit possible replacement fuels to the agency by July 1, 2014. The agency will then test as many as 10 fuels, according to the release. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 budget includes $5.6 million for the testing.
The General Aviation Avgas Coalition, which represents fuel- and aviation-industry groups, said it approved of the FAA decision. The coalition’s comments were released by one of its members, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a Washington-based trade group.
Finding a substitute fuel may require design changes and recertification of some high-performance planes, the group said in its statement.