Entrenched Government Policies Promote and Rationalize Aviation Lead Pollution

Miki Barnes, LCSW
President, Oregon Aviation Watch
June 27, 2016

Oregon Aviation Watch released its first article on aviation lead pollution five years ago, on July 4, 2011. Though it is now well known that according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documentation, the Port of Portland (Port) owned and operated Hillsboro Airport (HIO) is the largest facility source of lead pollution in Oregon,[1] close to a ton per year, not a single government agency has ever initiated a site specific program to measure air quality around HIO for lead and other toxic emissions. In this regard, it appears that the Governor appointed, Senate approved Port of Portland Board of Commissioners receives a special waiver allowing them to poison the environment, erode livability and compromise the health of area residents.

The Port has been aided and abetted in shirking its responsibility by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the City of Hillsboro. A thorough investigation might well reveal other players. The Port has historically dragged its feet on measuring and monitoring actual HIO lead levels, choosing instead to rely on estimation methods that are technically flawed. The DEQ and the FAA, supposedly the regulatory agencies overseeing the situation, have encouraged this behavior, even adopting the results of the offending polluter's own privately-commissioned study in lieu of an unbiased, objective third party analysis.

Alarmingly, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) at HIO has never been performed, even though over the course of its 86 year history HIO has expanded from a grassy airstrip located on 100 acres to a 900 acre airport with three runways. A review of Environmental Protection Agency, Port and FAA documentation reveals that during this same time frame HIO has become one of the biggest facility sources of a host of air toxins, including lead, in the region.[2]

Health Impacts of Lead

Lead is a pernicious neurotoxin and probable carcinogen. An extensive body of literature now links elevated blood lead levels, even in very low amounts, with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a disorder that can result in devastating effects on children, their families and society. Lead toxicity is also associated with conduct and antisocial personality disorder, an increase in violent behavior, birth defects, miscarriages and a host of other negative impacts.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned that "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected."[3] According to the EPA,

"...lead can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system. Lead exposure also affects the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. The lead effects most commonly encountered in current populations are neurological effects in children and cardiovascular effects (e.g., high blood pressure and heart disease) in adults. Infants and young children are especially sensitive to even low levels of lead, which may contribute to behavioral problems, learning deficits and lowered IQ."[4]

Oregon Aviation Watch Challenges Third Runway Expansion at HIO

In 2014, due to concerns about already high levels of lead emissions and other pollutants as well as noise, Oregon Aviation Watch appealed a Port of Portland/FAA decision to construct a third runway at the Hillsboro Airport, an expansion that has the potential to nearly double operations at this facility. Arguments presented in the legal briefs submitted by the FAA, U.S. Department of Justice, and the Port of Portland reveal the degree to which federal and state agencies collude with major polluters such as HIO.

An 11/4/14 brief signed by Maggie Smith from the U.S. Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division, argues that according to OAR 340-218-0020 sources of lead pollution in Oregon are only required to obtain an Air Contaminant Discharge Permit "if their lead emissions exceed 10 tons/year."[5] If this is indeed an accurate assessment of Oregon's regulations then it should come as no surprise that the greater Portland Metropolitan area is in the midst of a major environmental crisis, in part due to high lead levels.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FAA via Smith maintain that, "The EPA has set a de minimis level for lead at 25 tons/year," and asserts that the 0.1 ton per year increase forecast for HIO "comes nowhere close to this threshold." To further justify the USDOJ and FAA's position Smith states, "The EPA is the federal agency tasked with protecting air quality and establishing NAAQS [National Air Quality Standards]." She then proceeds to defer to the EPA's expertise on this matter.[6]

Sadly the USDOJ and FAA lightly brush aside HIO lead emissions without any serious evaluation of the potential effects on children:

"...the FAA fully considered the potential impacts of lead on children and reasonably concluded that any impact from the project would be well below the threshold for significance...the record demonstrates that these issues are well understood and have been thoroughly considered by the EPA whose guidance the FAA has followed"[7]

Needless to say, Oregon Aviation Watch vigorously disagrees with the above sited agency assertions. As noted by OAW attorney, Sean Malone,

"Respondents [U.S. Department of Justice, FAA, and Port of Portland] concede that the project could emit 200 pounds of lead in addition to the 1600 pounds emitted annually by 2016...Contrary to the Port's argument...200 pounds of lead is 'meaningful' and 'measurable,' and, under no circumstances, could 200 pounds of a neurotoxin measured in millionths of a gram be considered de minimis, especially in light of the negative and disproportionate effects on children."[8]

USDOJ, FAA and Port Rationalize Their Failure to Assess the Impact of HIO Lead Emissions

The USDOJ and FAA briefs also disavowed agency responsibility for evaluating the full impact of HIO lead emissions:

"...the Petitioners unreasonably conflate the impact of the project with the impact of the operation of Hillsboro Airport as a whole...the FAA was only required to evaluate the potential impact of construction of the runway, not operation of the entire airport."

In this way, the agencies sidestep all responsibility for monitoring the impact of releasing a ton of lead into the air each year. Their spurious arguments serve as a prime example of how government agencies systematically maneuver to justify and rationalize their indifference to the environment and the greater good.

Port of Portland Refuses to Provide Baseline Analysis of Lead

Lead is a toxin that is known to accumulate in the soil. Yet in response to concerns raised by Oregon Aviation Watch stressing the importance of obtaining baseline levels for lead dispersion and deposition, the Stoel Rives attorneys Beth Ginsberg and Jason Morgan, hired to represent the Port, claim "...there is no obligation to conduct a baseline analysis to satisfy NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act]...More specifically, there is no statutory or regulatory requirement to establish a 'baseline' as part of an EA" and further argue that the construction of the runway "has virtually no effect on the environment."[9] The Port's attorneys also contend that there is no evidence,

"..that 200 pounds of lead emitted into the atmosphere over the course of a year (and over a large geographic area) would have any meaningful (or even measurable) impact on lead levels in the soil. As the FAA explained, EPA set a de minimis emission level at 25 tons per year, below which 'no further analysis would be required.' The 200 pounds identified by Barnes is only 0.4% of EPA's de minimis threshold."[10]

In the end the Port wrote off these lead emissions as "virtually insignificant."[11] Apparently the Port believes that though HIO has pumped multiple tons of lead into the environment over the past 86 years and fully intends to continue releasing upwards of a ton per year for the foreseeable future, this has no significant impact on the environment. Like their counterparts at the FAA and USDOJ, the Port attorneys opted to ignore the 0.7 to 0.8 tpy already emitted by HIO on an annual basis.

In response to the Port's argument, Oregon Aviation Watch attorney, Sean Malone, pointed out that:

"Despite general aviation aircraft emitting lead for over 8 decades at HIO and above the City of Hillsboro, the FAA has never disclosed the environmental effects from aircraft operations. For that reason, disclosing the baseline for lead is essential to determining the total impact of indirect effects of lead dispersion and deposition in and around HIO and the City of Hillsboro, and this Court has required that agencies adequately disclose the baseline."[12]

Port of Portland Denies Lead Emission Impacts on Surrounding Community

According to the Port:

"'there is no industry accepted information to indicate that residents in the vicinity of Hillsboro Airport have been exposed to concentrations of lead from the aircraft that would cause 'the kinds of health impacts identified by Barnes.'"[13]

No mandated blood lead level testing has ever been done in the vicinity of HIO, nor has a Health Impact Assessment ever been performed. Thus, in the absence of any actual site specific lead monitoring at HIO, these statements are baseless. Given the seriousness of the situation, the pervasive failure to engage in health studies to measure lead emission impacts is indicative of the profound negligence exercised by elected officials as well as local, state and federal agencies. Would the Port's attorneys suggest that lead polluting industries such as Bullseye Glass, flight training companies and the Port of Portland set the standard? This is laughable. What is desperately needed is a non-biased, objective third party analysis of the situation. Ideally this would have been performed by DEQ, but in accord with their well established reputation for aligning with industry polluters, this has never been done.

The Port's attorneys also claim that actual measurements for lead

"...are not required by FAA's NEPA regulations and neither the EPA nor ODEQ has yet to require lead monitoring at Hillsboro because the nature of HIO (including total emissions, meteorology, and proximity to sources) does not create a significant potential for NAAQS violations."[14]

It is certainly curious in this regard that a small Portland manufacturing facility like Bullseye Glass, whose emission levels are not even included in the 2011 EPA National Emissions Inventory (NEI), has been found to contribute to elevated lead levels at a neighboring daycare center and as such has prompted the DEQ to place air monitors in the nearby vicinity and prohibit the use of lead in an uncontrolled furnace.[15]. Yet the Port, FAA and USDOJ insist that HIO, the largest facility source of lead in the entire state, has no significant impact. The fact that no government agency ever cared enough to measure lead emissions or mandate blood lead level testing does not mean there are none.

For the record, the Port has owned HIO for nearly a half century. During that time it has pursued a strategy of aggressive growth and expansion. The airport is now surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods. At no time in its 86 year history has HIO completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

City of Hillsboro Colludes with Port

It is worth noting at this juncture that in January of 2010, the City of Hillsboro passed an airport zoning ordinance, which, if implemented, would have further elevated aviation interests over and above everyone else. One condition of the zoning was to require developing property owners within more than a mile of HIO to sign an "avigation easement" forcing them to forfeit their rights to defend themselves from the negative impacts of aviation activity.

The zoning included a provision which gave the City on behalf of the Port "the right to subject the property to noise, vibrations, fumes, dust, and fuel particle emissions associated with normal aircraft activity." In other words, the ordinance was designed to allow the Port and the City to be held harmless for emissions of lead and other toxins onto the properties of neighboring landowners. In this regard, it appears that the Port and the City are for more invested in absolving themselves of all ethical, moral, and legal responsibility for protecting the community from toxic airport emissions. Thankfully, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) found the zoning to be unconstitutional and issued a reversal.[15]


The arguments put forth by the government agencies discussed above are both disturbing and frightening. To blithely ignore the impact of dumping lead on a community in the absence of monitoring or safeguards certainly sheds light on how children were so wantonly poisoned via government-sponsored policies in Flint, Michigan and closer to home in Portland, Oregon. The lead contaminated drinking water in Portland Public Schools also illustrates the extent to which tax payer funded government agencies routinely compromise the health and well being of area residents. The HIO issue indicates that negligent policies of a similar magnitude run rampant throughout every level of government.

In the present situation, there appears to be a consortium of government agencies including but not necessarily limited to the U.S. Department of Justice, the FAA, EPA, Oregon DEQ, Port of Portland and the City of Hillsboro - all of whom seem more than willing to sweep under the rug, the glaring need for a comprehensive environmental review of the impact of the Hillsboro Airport. A full EIS is needed to determine if lead emissions and other toxins emitted by this facility pose a threat to the local community. Clearly the agencies and government entities cited above have demonstrated a commitment to advocating on behalf of the less than one-third of one percent of Oregon's population who train or engage in recreational or business flights out of HIO but none fulfill their obligation to the other 99 and two-thirds percent.

Oregon has reached a critical juncture. Instead of continuing to rationalize the widespread lead pollution caused by HIO and other Washington County airports, for the sake of current and future generations, all levels of government should take immediate, definitive steps to ameliorate this very serious problem.


[1] To review the 2011 EPA National Emissions Inventory on various pollutants go to the EPA NEI available on-line at https://www.epa.gov/air-emissions-inventories/2011-national-emissions-inventory-nei-data. From there scroll down to the Google Fusion and Maps table and click on the specific pollutant. When the data appears click on the blue tab to filter by state, county, facility type or other preferred option.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Update on Blood Lead Levels in Children. Lead: What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children? Centers for Disease Control. Available on-line at http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/acclpp/blood_lead_levels.htm. Accessed on 5/22/16.

[4] What are the Effects of Lead on Human Health. Basic Information About Lead Air Pollution. EPA website. Available on-line at https://www.epa.gov/lead-air-pollution/basic-information-about-lead-air-pollution#how.

[5] Michelle Barnes, Et Al., v. The Federal Aviation Administration and The Port of Portland. In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. No. 14-71180. (11/4/14). Pg. 46-47. Available on-line at http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/docs/HIO_2014-34-1-FAA_Brief.pdf.

[6] Ibid. Pg. 44.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 48.

[8] Michelle Barnes Et. Al. v the Federal Aviation Administration and Port of Portland. Petitioners' Reply Brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. No. 14-71180. (12/2/14). Pg. 5-7. Available on-line at http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/docs/HIO_2014-41-1-Reply_Brief.pdf.

[9] Michelle Barnes, Et Al., v. The Federal Aviation Administration and Port of Portland. Port of Portland's Opposition Brief. In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. No. 14-71180. (11/17/14). Pg. 11. Available on-line at http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/docs/HIO_2014-37-Port_Brief.pdf.

[10] Ibid. Pg. 13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Michelle Barnes Et. Al. v the Federal Aviation Administration and Port of Portland. Petitioners' Reply Brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. No. 14-71180. (12/2/14). Pg. 7-8. Available on-line at http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/docs/HIO_2014-41-1-Reply_Brief.pdf.

[13] Michelle Barnes, Et Al., v. The Federal Aviation Administration and Port of Portland. Port of Portland's Opposition Brief. in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. No. 14-71180. (11/17/14). Pg. 24. Available on-line at http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/docs/HIO_2014-37-Port_Brief.pdf.

[14] Ibid. Pg. 25.

[15] DEQ and Bullseye Sign Agreement that Ensures State Oversight of Use of Hazardous Metals in Production, DEQ.(6/16/16). Available on-line at http://www.oregon.gov/newsroom/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?newsid=1142.

[16] Michelle Barnes vs. City of Hillsboro LUBA No. 2010-011, Final Order. (June 30, 2010), Pg. 17. Available on-line at http://www.oregonaviationwatch.org/docs/LUBA_decision_10011.pdf.

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