The Coastal Post - May 2000

Bay Area Airplane Air Pollution Blooming

By Chloe Lieberman

Has that seasonal distraction known as the travel bug begun to buzz in your ear yet? It's springtime, and exploring the world seems more appealing each day. The sun is shining, the grass is green and the skies are...brown? Maybe not right out your window, but pollution caused by airplanes and other modes of transportation is resulting in not-so-picture-perfect air.

Despite increased efforts in research and development of environmentally sound practices, the air quality in some parts of the Bay Area still do not meet the state standards for acceptable levels of ozone and carbon monoxide. This issue is something to which each of us contributes, and all have the responsibility to fix.

Experts at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and countless environmental firms are working to implement new technology and ideas for improving air quality, but the Bay area is growing almost as fast. The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is currently running a race between consumer-demanded growth and the development of practical, affordable solutions for the environmental problems it causes.

Air traffic has increased 575 percent since 1960 at SFO and is projected to increase 39 percent by 2012 (Independent Journal, 1999). This is due to a growing Bay Area population, and a greater demand for continental and international travel. Following a nationwide trend, SFO is currently constructing a new international runway and has proposed other expansions and reconstruction that would cover a total of 2.9 million square feet. This project will increase the flight capacity of the airport to 85 operations per hour and allow the airport to support larger airplanes (Runway Reconfiguration Feasibility Study, 1999). Unfortunately, it will also increase overall aircraft emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) to levels above what is recommended by the BAAQMD. The airport already accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of emissions of these pollutants in the Bay Area, which are precursors to the formation of ozone, smog and acid rain (BAAQMD, 1993).

Ozone is a harmful pollutant when it gets trapped in the lower atmosphere, irritating the respiratory system, especially for individuals suffering from asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, the young and the very old. Exposure to ozone can lead to damage of the lung tissue, premature aging of the lungs, increased chronic airway obstruction and diminished resistance to disease. It is formed when NOx reacts with sunlight, and goes on to react with VOCs to form the thick, brownish haze known as smog. NOx can also react with water vapor in clouds to form nitric acid, turning the rain acidic.

Along with increased VOCs and NOx, the expansion of SFO will increase emissions of carbon monoxide (CO), and oxides of sulfur (SOx) which are precursors to acid rain. With all of this increased pollution, one might ask what the airport and the federal government are doing to cut down on emissions while still keeping up with the consumer demand for flights. SFO is actually doing a lot; facilities to accommodate larger airplanes are being constructed because a smaller overall number of flights will improve total emissions. Two hundred million is being spent on construction connecting the BART system with SFO, and $500 million is going toward construction of a light rail system within the airport (Airport Director Memorandum, 2000).

Trip reduction policies at SFO have resulted in a 40 percent utilization of alternative forms of transportation (mass transit) by air passengers, and a 39 percent rate of ride-sharing among airport employees. The airport has also adopted a Clean Vehicle Policy providing compressed natural gas and electric vehicle fueling stations on-site and encouraging the use of alternative fuel vehicles. All on-site vehicles (luggage carriers) are to be converted to alternative fuels, and each gate provides electricity for planes once they have docked, cutting down on the use of inefficient auxiliary power units. These measures will allow the airport emissions from on-road motor vehicles, ground support equipment, fuel storage and handling, maintenance facilities, natural gas use, electricity use, and construction activities to drop during the coming years. Airplane emissions, however, cannot be monitored on the local or state level and are under the control of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA is researching cleaner-burning jet fuels, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is working toward lower airplane NOx emissions. Both of these programs are a step in the right direction, but with commercial aircraft use rising, and emissions from these aircraft accounting for 3.5 percent of global warming, the U.S. government needs to make this issue a priority. Recently a bill was passed which both encourages and subsidizes expansion of most U.S. airports; responsible environmental policies and practices must accompany this massive growth.

The Bay Area is one of the most environmentally conscious and responsible places in the country, and all of the steps toward lowering airport emissions that are being taken by SFO reflect that. However, the question is raised once again: Is the Bay Area growing too fast for such policies to keep up? Even with all of the investments and push for cleaner planes and vehicles, aircraft emissions will continue to rise as the overall flight number increases.

Residents are not expected to give up the annual family vacation, or the trip to see relatives, but they can be expected to fully participate in and support the actions being taken by the airport, Bay Area public transit and the BBAQMD to keep the air clean and safe. Also, voters can put pressure on the FAA and our representatives in Washington to tighten aircraft emission standards and put clean air on the top of their list. The population is growing rapidly, and the only way that the increase can be tolerated by the earth is if each individual takes their share of the responsibility for make sure the actions of humans do not negatively impact ourselves or the other inhabitants of this planet.

Happy Earth Day.

Chloe Lieberman is an Environmental Studies student Sir Francis Drake High School; intern, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin

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