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Black Dust:  Van Nuys Airport’s Toxic Problem

CLIMATE

OP/ED - In November 2022, the LA Times spotlighted an enormous environmental injustice caused by explosive growth in jet operations at Van Nuys Airport (VNY), a general aviation airport owned by the City of Los Angeles. From its start in 1928 as a small training facility for military pilots during World War II, VNY has morphed into one of the nation's busiest airports for private and charter jet traffic. VNY caters to the wealthy elite with jets that take off and land without security screenings and regulations required of commercial carriers at airports you and I must endure. According to Los Angeles World Airport (LAWA), the manager for VNY, jet traffic has increased over 52% from 46,000 takeoffs and landings in 2016 to nearly 70,000 in 2022.

Today, VNY ranks fifth in the nation for private jet traffic behind Palm Beach Airport, Dallas Love Field, and Westchester County Airport. Unlike VNY, those airports are commercial airports. Typically, commercial airports are in areas with green belts and buffer zones around them. In contrast, VNY is not a commercial airport. It is in a densely populated area surrounded by homes, schools, and businesses. The green spaces near VNY are Van Nuys Golf Course and Sepulveda Recreation Area, frequented by residents and visitors exposed 200 times a day to toxic particulate matter, noise, and air pollution from low-flying jets. 

With the proliferation of jets, the VNY of today is different from what it was. This historically small pilot training facility caters to 6000 jets taking off and landing each month. Large jets of commercial size capable of holding dozens of passengers idle daily and travel on ramps and aprons within merely a few hundred feet of homes, schools, and businesses. These jets blow their exhaust into residential areas adjacent to the airport. The jets are taking off and landing at low altitudes over homes and schools near the airport, sometimes with a minuscule amount of time in between. The takeoffs typically take the jets fully loaded with highly flammable fuel over the extremely arid Santa Monica Mountains. 

With a total population of 168,111 and 12,758 people per square mile, Van Nuys is among the most densely populated cities in the US. Most of the residents are of Hispanic descent. A UCLA Pediatric Faculty and Resident group recently published a Health Impact Assessment (UCLA HIA) that summarizes the health-associated impacts of Van Nuys Airport on the neighboring communities. The UCLA study found that the students going to the numerous schools surrounding the airport are, by a vast majority, socioeconomically disadvantaged. The UCLA HIA references a 2019 study finding that students near the airport experienced three to six more hours of exposure to pollution per school day than those farther away. 

What's in the black dust coming from jets at Van Nuys Airport and blanketing everything around the airport, including the residents, the businesses, the schools, and plant life around it? Jet engines spew volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, particulate matter (PM) with associated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and the incomplete combustion of kerosene known as soot, all known cancer-causing agents. Two groundbreaking air quality studies — a 2019 study of SeaTac Airport and a 2014 LAX study — found that people living closer to these airports have exposure to elevated levels of jet-emitted ultrafine, carcinogenic particles. These are very damaging to human health. The Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and Environmental Protection Agency should be conducting rigorous studies on the amount of easily detectable pollution emanating out of VNY. 

LAWA is not interested in reducing the pollution. They are acutely interested in expanding operations and do everything they can to ignore and to stifle dissent from the people most harmed by airport operations. What can you do to address this serious problem, possibly to your health? Contact the State Attorney General Rob Bonta. Mr. Bonta is California's highest-ranking elected official who has publicly committed to the principles of environmental justice. Urge him and the State of California to address the obvious injustice and harm being done to the children and residents of Van Nuys and surrounding communities. You can also contact LA City Councilmember Imelda Padilla in Council District 6. She promised during her campaign to reign in the explosive growth of jets at VNY. Van Nuys residents put their hopes for a quieter smaller airport in Imelda, and it has now been four months without a word from her office about the VNY problem. Will she sweep it under the rug like the disgraced Nury Martinez?

Please visit https://oag.ca.gov/environment/justice and email Mr. Bonta at [email protected] to express your concerns and demand a response.  To contact Ms. Padilla, please email her at [email protected]. 

(Eliot Cohen is President of Homeowners of Encino and serves on the Citizens Advisory Council for Van Nuys airport.) 

(Christine Kim is a Sherman Oaks resident and former board member of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council.)

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