Why East San José Residents Are Calling for Action

NRDC has joined forces with our partners the Cassell Neighborhood Association, SOMOS Mayfair, Green Foothills, SURJ @ Sacred Heart, Community Health Partnerships, and LUNA to help ensure that every concerned resident can make their voice heard about the serious impacts of a local hazardous airport.

A plane flies overhead during a community rally.

Credit: Cecilia Segal

“The Reid Hillview Airport is a product of ongoing systemic issues harming East San José residents,” states a petition started by the Close Reid-Hillview Now! Coalition. This sentiment is shared by the more than 1,200 (and counting) petition signatories urging officials to protect residents and put an end to the environmental injustice taking place there—particularly in light of a new study published last week linking the airport with dangerously high blood lead levels in children living nearby.

Reid-Hillview is a small general aviation airport owned and operated by Santa Clara County. It’s used primarily by pilot hobbyists for recreation and houses a flight school run by San José State University. Unfortunately, these uses come at significant cost to the health and safety of the surrounding neighborhood.

Here are the three main reasons why County officials must take urgent action to safeguard East San José communities from this dangerous airport:

1. Use of Lead-Based Fuel Exposes Residents to Lead Contamination

First and foremost, the majority of airplanes at Reid-Hillview use lead-based fuel, exposing local residents to lead contamination. Though this fuel was phased out of cars and commercial jets decades ago, it continues to be used by small piston-engine aircraft, representing the single largest source of U.S. lead air pollution. Once the lead is emitted it eventually settles back down onto the surfaces below, where the surrounding community is at risk of ingesting and inhaling lead-contaminated soil and dust particles.

There is no safe level of lead exposure. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious and permanent health effects in children, including learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and cardiovascular disease. Yet despite widespread agreement among scientists, government agencies, and even aviation advocates that lead-based fuel puts communities at risk, the planes at Reid-Hillview continue to use it. The result is a “daily, unabated stream of an undeniably harmful toxic” and an increase in blood lead levels in children on par with that experienced at the height of the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Children are particularly susceptible to the dangers of lead contamination.

Credit: Maricela Lechuga

2. Persistent Noise Affects the Community’s Health and Wellbeing

The airport also exposes residents to non-stop noise impacts, a serious and often-overlooked public health concern. Noise pollution is associated with not only hearing loss but also cardiovascular problems, loss of sleep, and changes in brain chemistry. Aircraft noise in particular has been shown to disrupt children’s learning, with noise of about 55 decibels affecting reading comprehension. For context, the noise from a food blender at 3 feet away is approximately 90 decibels.

3. Low-Altitude, Student-Flown Airplanes Are a Safety Risk

In addition to air and noise pollution, East San José residents face the constant threat that a low-flying plane—often operated by student pilots—will crash into one of the parks, schools, or homes below. Regrettably, that threat is very real: a plane crash-landed in a public park just last year, while another crash in 2017 left three people injured. A fatal crash near the Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles in 2020 underscores the danger and constant fear felt by the neighboring communities, and has sparked a similar campaign by local group Pacoima Beautiful to shut Whiteman down.

The health and safety concerns stemming from Reid-Hillview are compounded by many other injustices experienced by the predominantly Latino community over the years, including ongoing gentrification, lack of access to education and economic opportunities, and higher rates of COVID-19, pollution, and poverty.

There’s Hope

After years of grassroots advocacy, the County is finally starting to listen to the community’s concerns. In late 2018 the Board of Supervisors voted to no longer accept federal grants for the airport and in 2020 it commissioned the recently published lead study. The County will be hosting a meeting on August 17 to discuss the study and hear from local residents about the airport’s future.

A canvassing team from Community Health Partnerships collects petition signatures.

Credit: Jeremy Barousse

But much more action is needed. Local groups, including the Cassell Neighborhood Association, SOMOS Mayfair, Green Foothills, SURJ @ Sacred Heart, Community Health Partnerships, and LUNA are calling on government officials to protect East San José residents from the serious impacts of this hazardous airport and commit to giving impacted residents a say in what their community looks like and what happens at the airport site. NRDC stands with these grassroots organizations in their fight to ensure that their voices are heard and that their community is protected, now and in the future.

Special thanks to Alicia Arrington (Legal Intern) for her research and contributions to this blog.

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