Colorado Governor Signs Bill Targeting Airport Impacts, but Fight Against Noise and Lead Continues

May 20, 2024

Gov. Jared Polis on Friday signed into law a measure that aims to provide relief to those living in the shadows of Colorado’s airports, which have been blamed for exposing people beneath flight paths to noise pollution and lead contamination.

But as the governor was putting pen to paper, an airplane’s engine buzzed overhead — an irony that prompted laughter in the crowd attending the bill signing at Wildflower Park in Superior. The town sits just down the hill from the runways of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.

“This bill doesn’t do everything,” state Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said about House Bill 1235, known as the Reduce Aviation Impacts on Communities Act.

Fenberg was accompanied by two other bill sponsors, Reps. Shannon Bird and Kyle Brown, for the signing.

“People can’t be expected to live in their homes with constant noise 24/7,” Bird said, calling for “peaceful coexistence” between Colorado’s 76 airports and the communities in their midst.

But the lawmakers’ wish is easier said than done, given the supremacy of the Federal Aviation Administration over everything that happens in the skies over the nation’s airports. The divergence between federal jurisdiction and state and local authority has led to years of discontent and complaints from Coloradans living near airports who regularly deal with airplane noise and lead deposition from aircraft burning leaded fuel.

The dispute over lead and noise has been most pronounced around Rocky Mountain and Centennial airports, which together have more than a half million annual landings and takeoffs. They are surrounded by thousands of suburban homes.

The bill, which went into effect immediately Friday, sets aside $1.5 million annually from the state aviation fund to help airports transition to unleaded aviation gas. It also requires airports accepting grant money to work with pilots to craft a plan to reduce noise from flights.

The bill expands the state’s aeronautical board by adding two members “who are residents of communities that are affected by general aviation airport traffic,” giving them a voice in where state aviation grant money goes.

“This bill is doing what it can,” said Donna Urban, a Centennial resident who belongs to the community group Quiet Skies Over Arapahoe County. “We definitely think it will speed up lead relief.”

Charlene Willey, a Westminster resident who lives under a low-flying flight path directly east of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, called HB 1235 “a start,” though she complained that the original version of the bill was substantially altered by lobbyists representing the aviation industry.

“Because I see this as a public health issue, they aren’t doing it fast enough,” Willey said. “I would have liked to have seen mandatory noise abatement policies.”

HB 1235 doesn’t mandate that airports do anything to be less of a nuisance to the communities near them, Brown said in an interview. That’s because the state can’t, given the FAA’s singular authority over airport operations.

“We can’t tell pilots where to go and we can’t keep communities from owning airports,” he said. “But we can make sure our state funding can be used at airports that are being good neighbors.”

A recent study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that children living near small airports in Colorado had slightly higher levels of lead in their blood than the statewide average — though experts had diverging opinions on how significant that difference was.

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The study found lead levels to be within the range the federal government considers normal and didn’t prove that living near an airport caused the increase in blood lead levels, though levels declined consistently as the distance from an airport increased, reaching the state average at about two miles out.

Last fall, Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport pledged to fully shift from the use of leaded aviation gasoline to unleaded fuel at its facility within four years. Centennial, Colorado’s largest general aviation airport, became the first in the state to offer unleaded fuel a year ago.

Audra Dubler, who lives near Centennial Airport, said she was glad her and her neighbors’ voices were finally being heard.

“It’s someone listening to our cries for help. But it doesn’t stop the flight schools from terrorizing our lives on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s a start, but we have a long way to go.”

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