Four people stand in front of a tank truck
From left, Jefferson County Commissioner Tracy Kraft-Tharp, RMMA Airport Director Paul Anslow, Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper and Commissioner Andy Kerr stand in front of the airport's new fuel truck. Credit: Jane Reuter

Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport is poised to beat a federal deadline to phase out leaded fuel, which has been linked to public health concerns.

Airport officials said they have taken a first step by purchasing a fuel truck and storage tank to transport unleaded fuel that will serve two-thirds of its fleet by late 2024.

RMMA and Jefferson County Commissioners showed off the truck during an Oct. 4 press conference. Airport officials say they expect to complete a phased move to unleaded fuel three years before a 2030 deadline set by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Our goal is to be the first airport in the state that fully transitions to unleaded fuel,” said Paul Anslow, RMMA airport director.

The FAA last year launched a plan called Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions calling for the elimination of leaded fuel in piston-engine aircraft Petroleum companies are ramping up to meet the FAA’s deadline, developing fuel that will meet the industry’s needs. An unleaded high-grade aviation gasoline called UL100 is expected to serve all piston aircraft but is not yet widely available. 

The fuel truck and storage tank give RMMA a running start on the changeover, as well as to store and transport another unleaded variety called UL94, which will serve as a stopgap in the transition.

As production of UL100 scales up and becomes more readily available, RMMA will transition aircraft. Anslow anticipates that the final phase will be complete by or before 2027. 

“Our team’s commitment to innovative solutions and community collaboration is why the airport’s full transition will be well before the FAA deadline,” he said. “The aviation industry is working to scale production of 100UL for the larger market, and we feel confident that availability will rapidly increase while the price decreases.”

Anslow said Jefferson County Commissioners partnered with RMMA and supported the changes.

“It is big news for Jefferson County … a county that prides ourselves on safe, sustainable, and responsible change,” Jefferson County Commissioner Tracy Kraft-Tharp said during the press conference.

Neighbors happy with news

Neighboring property owners, who have been critical of aviators’ use of leaded fuel, say RMMA’s accelerated timeline wouldn’t have happened without them. Anslow said that assertion is “absolutely not true.” 

“The airport has been working on this for months and the neighbors had no impact on our decisions,” he said.

But Westminster’s Charlene Willey, who lives in the nearby Green Knolls neighborhood and is with the Save Our Skies Alliance, says nearby homeowners have been expressing concerns for years.

“Although we’re very grateful the airport has chosen this direction, it’s only after years of effort by concerned citizens,” she said. “We hope this opens the door to greater transparency and planning and more meaningful engagement with communities — on not just lead, but a host of other environmental, public health and other concerns. We just want to be heard.”

Ken Atwell, who lives in Brooomfield’s Skyestone neighborhood, said he was very pleased by the news. 

“We’ve been concerned about lead and noise since I moved here in 2016,” he said. “If we can control the lead, maybe we can control the noise. This just shows that working in cooperation, we can accomplish things.” 

Fast Facts about RMMA’s switch to unleaded fuel:

  • The airport’s new fuel truck, already on site, was purchased at auction for $50,000. Of that, $40,000 came from an FAA grant, the remaining $10,000 from RMMA.
  • The storage tank has a $185,000 price tag, plus an estimated installation cost of $500,000.  It will be delivered and installed in summer 2024.

The Town of Superior, health care officials and neighbors have all encouraged RMMA to make the transition. 

Most small airplanes in the U.S. burn fuel with lead, a toxic additive introduced decades ago to boost octane levels. Lead has been tied to lowered IQ, learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children. 

As recently as 2022, RMMA ranked 63rd on the top 100 lead-emitting airports in the country. The airport dropped 580 pounds of lead in 2017.  

RMMA, founded in 1960 and owned and operated by Jefferson County, is the third busiest airport in the state with more than 400 aircraft and 50 businesses. 

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