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Northern Colorado residents say an expanding airport is exposing them to lead

Noelle Roni sits at a black table pointing at dark gray images on a printout with a staircase behind her
Scott Franz
Noelle Roni of Superior points to a visual she made showing flight traffic over her home, Feb. 25, 2023. Roni is one of several residents raising concerns about lead exposure at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport in Jefferson County.

Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part series about air pollution in Northern Colorado and the impacts it is having on residents.

A plane takes off or lands every three minutes at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County.

When they reach the Rock Creek neighborhood in Superior, the planes are close enough to the ground that the neighborhood dogs try striking up a conversation.

“There’s the obligatory dog bark,” Rock Creek resident Mike Koschmann said as Winter, his Alaskan Malamute, starts howling at a Cessna buzzing by his home one morning.

The neighbor's dogs also get involved and start barking. As another plane approaches, the symphony of propellers and barks starts all over again.

Koschmann said the constant drum of airplanes can make it hard to work and sleep sometimes.

"It just it feels like that ripple effect has gotten to a bit of a tipping point where it's more than a nuisance," he said.

Matt Koschmann stands on a porch in front of a wooden fence with an open, snowy expanse in the background
Scott Franz
Matt Koschmann stands on his back porch with Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport property visible in the background, Feb. 24, 2023. Koschmann, of Superior, lives in the house that is closest to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County. He said the growing noise from the facility has become "more than a nuisance."

A few blocks away, the flight traffic also has a profound impact on resident Robert Boutelle.

You kind of live your life around the noise,” he said. “Are you going to wake up to your alarm or are you going to wake up to an airplane at 6:30 or 5:30 in the morning?”

Boutelle and his wife moved to this picturesque neighborhood about two years ago because they thought it would be the perfect place to start a family.

Boutelle said he was drawn by the availability of swimming classes and tennis and science camps for children.

But he said the nearby airport is putting that dream on hold because of increasing traffic and a new concern about air pollution.

Flight operations have gone up 40% since the Boutelles moved to Rock Creek two years ago. On average, that’s an extra 203 flights per day.

A graph of flight operations at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield  by year

But the concern about airplane noise has taken a backseat to a more pressing fear: air quality.

In 2021, scientists in California published a study that found children living closer to an airport runway had higher levels of lead in their blood.

Most smaller, non-commercial planes, like the ones Winter the Alaskan Malamut barks at every day in Superior, are running on leaded fuel.

In California, the team of scientists used nine years of blood samples and modeling to determine that the closer a child was living to an airport where these types of planes take off and land, the more lead they had in their bodies.

The Reed-Hillview Airport in California, where the study was done, banned the sale of leaded gas following the scientific research.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also considering implementing a ban, but that process could take years.

Boutelle and other Superior residents said they are growing frustrated as more and more lead-powered planes buzz over their homes.

“Once lead gets in a child’s system it's an irreversible deficit they have,” Boutelle said. “It's permanent for the rest of our lives. So I think from here, I think we have to act now.

In December, as word of the lead study in California spread across the country, nine of Boutelle’s neighbors had their homes swabbed and tested for lead. They said the results came back positive.

The discovery has caused Boutelle and his wife to put their family plans on hold.

We do not want to raise this child in an environment that would be dangerous for them,” he said.

“We’re being poisoned”

A few blocks away, Noelle Roni is raising her two children in the shadow of the airport in Superior. She said she was alarmed after a private test of her house found lead on her teenage son’s bedroom window.

“Every time now I hear an airplane, it's just, ‘oh my gosh, lead,’” Roni said. “I hear it and I immediately think, 'we're being poisoned.'”

She said she has even thought about leaving the community she raised her family in for the last 18 years.

Should we be living here?,” she asked herself from her dining room table as her teenage sons watched television in the living room. “I mean, we're putting our kids at risk.”

But moving is expensive, she said, so she’s banded together with residents like Boutelle to raise awareness about the potential for lead exposure.

It shouldn't be that we have to move when someone is impacting our health,” she said in reference to the nearby airport. "They need to do something about making it right.”

Roni and Boutelle are among a growing number of residents who have been raising their concerns about noise and lead pollution at public meetings for more than a year. A community group called Save Our Skies Alliance is also pursuing changes at the airport.

The airport convened a group of elected officials in the region in 2018 to discuss the airport's noise impact. More recently, the conversation has started to expand to discussions of lead contamination following the publication of the Reed-Hillview Airport study warning of potential exposure for residents living near small-aircraft airports.

At a heated hearing with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the airport in Jefferson County last month, dozens of residents vented about a lack of progress.

A group of people sit at chairs in a conference room with overhead fluorescent lights while one woman stands up
Scott Franz
Noelle Roni speaks about lead exposure at a hearing with the Federal Aviation Administration in Broomfield, Feb. 13, 2023. Dozens of residents attended the meeting to raise concerns about noise, safety and potential lead exposure.

"I shouldn't have to move," Superior resident Bridget Wagner told the airport leaders. "Study after study after study says the (flight operations) affects our kids...Why can't we work together? Why can't we hold people accountable?"

An economic benefit

Inside the airport terminal in Jefferson County, Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport Director Paul Anslow sees the situation differently. He said the facility’s rapid growth is helping to train a new generation of pilots at a time the commercial airline industry is facing a shortage of them. He also estimates the airport is generating more than a $1 billion in economic benefit.

A Colorado Department of Transportation study claims the airport generated $730 million in payroll, tourism and other economic benefits to the state in 2020. Air traffic has grown significantly since then.

“We're market driven, and to be honest we are probably the most sought-out airport in the country right now because of our location between Boulder and the (Denver) Tech Center,” Anslow said.

A small white airplane with a propeller sits on gray tarmac below a bright blue sky
Scott Franz
A plane sits near the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, March 5, 2023. Traffic has increased more than 40% at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in the last two years.

Anslow has a prestigious aviation career. He flew a marine helicopter for former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. On a Monday morning in March, he beams as he hops on a bus to take elected officials on a tour of the airport. As the bus drives through a maze of hangars, he points out some of it’s most famous customers such as the billionaire James Leprino.

Mr. Leprino is one of four billionaires in Colorado,” Anslow said from the front of the tour bus. “His plane and his flight department are right here. He does all the cheese for all the Pizza Huts and all that stuff. We’re really happy to have him here.”

Anslow also points out where a new firefighting helicopter will be based in a hangar he said was previously used by a company that produces soil for marijuana growers.

Gray seats inside a bus with some people seated toward the front and a view of an airplane on the tarmac outside
Scott Franz
Members of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport's Community Noise Roundtable listen to Airport Director Paul Anslow during a tour of the facility, March 5, 2023. Anslow said he doesn't believe a California study that concluded a nearby airport was a source of lead pollution.

Anslow’s tone shifts suddenly, however, when a member of the airport’s Community Noise Roundtable group asks him about the concerns nearby residents are raising about lead pollution.

“It's not proven that (the lead) is coming from the planes,” he said. “We drove leaded cars from the 1920s until the 1970s. That lead doesn't go away."

'Out of my control'

Back in his office, Anslow explained he doesn’t have the power to switch to unleaded fuel under FAA regulations.

We really have no role,” he said of regulating the sale of leaded gasoline. “The airport does not sell leaded fuel. We have companies that sell a federally-approved product that is approved both by the FAA and the EPA. I'm actually forbidden to restrict that."

Anslow has accused some nearby residents of bringing up concerns about lead exposure as a "tactic" to shut the airport down.

He also said he has other reasons to doubt the 2021 California study identifying planes as the culprit behind lead exposure.

“There was an agenda by the people who paid for that study,” he said, adding that the county that owns the airport also voted to eventually close it down following the lead study. “I'm not saying lead is good. Like, I want to be very clear, I'm not a lead fan. But the reality is they had an agenda and they wanted to (close the airport). They can't prove that that lead is coming from the airplanes.”

The study Anslow has called into question was led by two Colorado researchers, and they’re standing by their work.

Christopher Keyes, one of the lead researchers who is a data scientist in Fort Collins, said the study is bringing a public health hazard to the forefront.

“The results were published in a peer-reviewed journal,” Keyes said. “We had no incentive other than our scientific merit to do the most honest assessment of the information we had available.”

Keyes said the study also has big implications for public health.

“Studies have shown that, say, a one microgram increase in blood lead can reduce a child's IQ score by half a point, and these extend to behavioral and other cognitive outcomes as well,” he said.

Back in Superior, with air traffic continuing to increase Robert Boutelle is trying to convince his elected officials to do a lead exposure study like the one in California.

He gave a presentation to the town board on March 13.

"There's no safe levels of lead for children," he said.

And his calls for action are starting to get traction. The Town Board agreed after the presentation to send a letter calling on the airport to sell unleaded fuel.

"We're not trying to take away their flights," Trustee Jason Serbu said. "We're trying to do something in a safer manner for all the people in the community, especially the new children that are coming here."

The Town is also considering some form of a study on the lead pollution, including possible blood testing.

Boutelle said he frames the debate as one of profit versus public health.

“What's better for society?,” he asked. “What's better? Is it profit or is it our children's future?”

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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