GREAT BARRINGTON — If you didn't know what was going on here, it's a happy, romantic scene under a bright summer sky. A couple has pulled their airplane up to the self-serve fuel tank at Walter J. Koladza Airport, and loading it with bags from their car.
"We're going to Nantucket then to Newport," the husband is saying, as the airport owner's bright-eyed 18-year-old son comes over and fuels up the couple's Piper Cherokee.
But just then, the airport manager starts talking about water samples and environmental testing, and what Koladza's neighbors are saying might be lead contamination after water tests in two nearby homes revealed high concentrations of lead.
So as the airport continues on a new approach to a stormy town permitting process that will allow it to build three hangars, lead in aviation fuel is still a target for stopping the project.
While it is a real problem everywhere, it's one on its way to being solved in the next few years. Lead is not used in cars anymore, or in most commercial airplanes. The last place you will find lead in transportation fuel is in small private aircraft, and the Federal Aviation Administration is trying to get it out by 2018.
"Avgas [aviation gas] emissions have become the largest contributor to the relatively low levels of lead emissions produced in this country," says the FAA's website.
And the FAA's program to find a high octane unleaded avgas suitable for piston-engine powered aircraft is on track, according to FAA spokeswoman Allison Duquette. And one fuel producer in the program says a new product should be available by 2020.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr said whenever it does happen, it will coincide with a ban on leaded avgas, something the FAA and US Environmental Protection Agency are coordinating. This will involve the EPA making an official "endangerment finding" about the health effects of leaded fuels, he added.
About one-third of all piston-engine aircraft - around $65,000 airplanes - need the high octane leaded fuel to prevent damage that can cause sudden engine failure.
But the EPA says for humans, there is no safe level lead - it can stick to soil particles after traveling long distances from an airplane, or other source of emission. And depending on the type of lead and soil, it can leach into groundwater.
This is something neighbors of Walter J. Koladza Airport are worried has already happened over the years, harming the aquifer the town relies on for drinking water. The state has acknowledged that the airport - along with other nearby threats - is a risk to the aquifer. Two neighbors found lead concentrations well above the level the EPA says requires remediation. But water and soil test results from the airport show low concentrations. And so does the town's water as of 2015.
Right now the airport sells 100LL, a high octane avgas that contains lead. While the self-serve fueling station has an underground tank, it has a computerized monitoring system to check for leaks. And that tank will be replaced with an above-ground tank this summer because state environmental regulations require it.
But now some neighbors are saying the airport, as a condition of being allowed to expand, should also carry an unleaded avgas that's already on the market until FAA program unveils the new, unleaded fuel that all piston-engine planes can handle.
Swift to the market
The FAA is working with the EPA, industry, and avgas producers, Shell and Swift Fuels to come up with the unleaded replacement.
Since the agency's Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative isn't expected to bear fruit for several more years, Swift - a small, Indiana-based company - came up with an unleaded alternative for use in those 123,000 private airplanes in the country that can use it, according to Swift CEO Christopher D'Acosta.
The company is now selling UL94 at 18 airports around the country - including Falmouth Airpark - as well as at 23 private airfields and one university.
And not only because lead can be toxic.
"Pilots are asking for it," D'Acosta said. "They don't like lead-fouling, which forces the pilot to operate on certain maintenance schedules because lead messes up the engine. Certain types of airplanes are susceptible."
But there are still about 65,000 small aircraft for which there is still no other alternative but high octane leaded avgas, said D'Acosta, noting that airports that sell UL94 will also have to keep selling leaded avgas until the FAA program unveils the replacement fuel.
"We're three years into a 5-year schedule to make that happen," D'Acosta said of the FAA initiative.
D'Acosta said pricing for UL94 is "commercially competitive" with leaded fuel, but that the ultimate price would depend on the supply chain and the economic considerations of the airport like property taxes.
"The airport is free to charge whatever they want," he said.
But so far, UL94, is "pretty cheap," as Koladza manager Kenneth Krentsa put it, after having looked into it.
But he also noted that only about two to three percent of airplanes at Koladza will be able to use it.
At Koladza, the leaded 100LL is selling for $4.68, according to AirNav.com, a price that competes with UL94 pricing.
At Falmouth Airpark UL94 is selling at $4.55 per gallon, and around the country, it's a similar story. At San Carlos Airport in California, Dan Demeo of Rabbit Aviation Services said UL94 is $4.60 per gallon, and about 55 percent of planes at the airport can use it.
Demeo said the push to get UL94 was environmentally-minded.
"Our county board of supervisors really supported it - we're in the Bay area, so I think people are a little more sensitive," he said. "We worked with the airport manager and the San Mateo public works and we all got on board."
Krentsa said there is a catch, should Koladza carry UL94. It's called a Supplemental Type Certificate, something a pilot needs from the FAA to use a different product or part.
Krentsa said the cost of such a certificate is about $3,000.
"You can't just put something in your airplane and say, `hey this is going to work,'" he said. "It could be a light bulb, the use of auto fuel - someone has done all the research, and you have to pay them ... it's like having a patent, and royalties for them to do the legwork."
"Who's going to pay the $3,000 just to be able to use that fuel?" he wondered.
The FAA is trying to tackle this, too, given what will be a complicated transition to unleaded avgas at the end of its testing program.
The FAA's Dorr said while some aircraft require the certificate to use UL94, the agency is trying to find a way to get an aircraft or engine type certified by the manufacturer, or by giving a certificate to a third-party like the fuel producer.
The FAA is also working with Congress on adding new language to a bill that would let the agency automatically allow the use of new unleaded fuels without a certificate, he said.
But light sport aircraft don't need the certificate to use the fuel, said Randy Simon, Falmouth Airpark's manager. He said the airport started selling UL94 for those models, which need less maintenance with UL94. He also said airplanes built in the 1940s were designed to run on unleaded fuel.
"People aren't educated yet," Simon said, noting that Swift gave the airport a lot of brochures and signs to put near the fueling area to help spread the word. Roughly 20 percent of planes at the Airpark are using UL94, he added.
While Krentsa understands all this, he said there is another cost to Koladza if it were to also sell UL94 - a second tank, or a split tank, which can be more expensive.
Krentsa, who is now shopping for the new tank, said the cost can run anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000.
Krentsa has previously said he would be happy to sell UL94, but that right now, it appears to be too challenging and expensive.
D'Acosta, who said he is eager to sell UL94, also said it isn't just about making money. He talked about how the phase-out of lead in auto fuel that began in 1973, and how what's left are mostly these small private aircraft.
"That's exactly why we're doing all this," he said. "Everybody in the country knows that lead is a bad thing. There have been efforts to [get lead out] for decades and this is just the tail end of those efforts."
Reach Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871