GREAT BARRINGTON — Walter J. Koladza Airport is gradually taking off into a new, unleaded aviation world.
After a year of fights with neighbors who said leaded fuel from the airport might be contaminating the aquifer, the airport is offering a new fuel.
Joining a Federal Aviation Administration program, it is supplementing its mainstay leaded fuel with Swift Fuels' UL94, a 94-octane, unleaded product.
About half of the roughly 50 planes that fuel up at Koladza will be able to use the unleaded fuel, said Mark Roggen, the airport's business manager.
Koladza is the second airport in the state to sell UL94, a relatively new product created by Swift. The company made the gas for interim use until an FAA testing program for an unleaded gas suitable to all small planes is completed in the next few years.
While most commercial planes already use unleaded fuel, a large number of the country's smaller planes have high-performance engines that can't run without the lead additive, Roggen said.
Roggen said unleaded fuel is better for airplane engines anyway, since it prevents other problems.
An underground, single-wall fuel tank was recently removed to make way for a new fiberglass double-walled split tank to hold the UL94 and 100LL, Shell's more commonly used leaded variety, Roggen said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection requires replacement of fuel tanks every 20 years. Last week, the town Planning Board approved the removal of the old tank.
Roggen said the new tank will be installed in the next week or so. Until then, Swift and Shell fuel trucks are dispensing the gas, something that nearby residents say should require more local oversight.
One resident is also concerned about having underground tanks in what is now zoned as a Water Quality Protection Overlay District, since the aquifer below ground feeds the local water supply. The town is weighing whether this requires a special permit in addition to the state's permit.
An earlier inclination to install an above-ground tank was scrapped for safety reasons related, in part, to its location, Roggen added.
"We had some incidents that made us think an above-ground tank would be more vulnerable," he said, noting that gas stations have underground tanks.
He said the decision was made for cosmetic reasons, too.
"Who wants to be looking at a tank?" he asked.
Roggen said the main reason to carry unleaded gas is to be "responsive" to neighbors, "even though we didn't think lead was an issue."
While some neighbors' water tested well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency action level for lead, test results from soil and water at the airport's property was in a range that the EPA considers low.
Neighbor Marc Fasteau, whose well water tested at the EPA action level, said he's still concerned about airborne lead coming from planes that still use it.
And neighbor Holly Hamer said that, while she is happy about the new fuel, she is also worried about it being dispensed from tankers.
The issue arose when Berkshire Aviation Enterprises filed for a special permit to build new hangars. The buildings were to be located in what the town designated as a residential/agricultural zone and a Water Quality Protection District, decades after the airport began operating off Route 71 and Seekonk Cross Road.
Many nearby residents objected to the buildings, saying they might result in an expansion of the airport, and more air traffic and safety risks.
Soon, well and faucet water were tested, research was done and residents learned that the EPA and FAA consider lead emissions from aviation fuel to be an environmental and potential health risk.
That's why the agency, in concert with the EPA, is testing unleaded fuels, and one of Swift's products is in the running.
For now, the hangar plans appear to be on hold, Roggen said. The controversy about the airport's building plans grew so contentious that its owners dropped a special-permit application last summer.
At the time, Koladza attorney Lori Robbins said Berkshire Aviation would instead file for a permit with the town's Zoning Board of Appeals.
Roggen said carrying the Swift fuel puts the airport on a path to an unleaded future in anticipation of the new gas the FAA will eventually unveil.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org at @BE_hbellow on Twitter, and 413-329-6871.