Santa Monica Airport Air Quality Monitoring Contract May Benefit Airport Commissioner and Her Associates

In a rush to spent $54,000 to placate those concerned about airport pollution, the City of Santa Monica paid for two air quality monitors to measure air quality around the Santa Monica airport. The value of this data, who is benefiting from the contract and who wrote the request, don’t appear to be consistent with the City press release stating that Tuffs University was awarded the contract.

In late 2017, the Santa Monica Airport Commissioner, Suzanne Paulson asked the City of Santa Monica to finance an air quality study at KSMO. The City released a request for proposals (RFP) for an “air quality study to be conducted around the airport (runway) shortening” to “update the air quality study conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD).”

When the AQMD study was done in 2010, there were six test sites in and around KSMO. One site was located in Central Los Angeles as a control. The results of the study showed there were no significant differences between air quality on, near or far from the airport locations. The only elevated levels were 100 meters downwind from a jet take-off for a one-minute duration. The AQMD report stated air quality was “considered to be typical of background conditions in the study area…due to near by vehicular traffic.”

The new study commissioned by the City of Santa Monica has only two locations, less than 500 feet apart and no control location.

The new RFP stated goals claim to understand, “whether the change in the turbine aircraft fleet mix impacts the air quality surrounding the airport by comparing levels before and after the runway shortening against baseline data collected during the closure”.[1]  To accomplish this task, air quality monitoring would have to take place during normal weather conditions, a normal number of operations, and with a typical mix of jet and piston aircraft.

Construction to shorten the runway at the Santa Monica Airport started October 23rd and was scheduled to complete in mid-January. A ten-day total closure started on Dec 13th, and the airport reopened on December 23rd. 

During the entire month of December, Santa Ana winds created ideal conditions for strong winds out of the East and dry particulate-filled air was streaming into the Los Angeles basin. These strong, sustained easterly winds enabled the Thomas and Skirball wildfires. The Thomas fire started on December 4th; the Skirball Fire started on December 6th. With winds gusting 60–100mph,[2] the smoke from these fires filled the Santa Monica sky with ash and other fire-produced pollutants throughout the month of December. Airport construction with heavy trucks, utility vehicles, extensive pavement grinding, demolition debris and diesel fumes, spanned four months. Everything at the airport, even airplanes stored inside closed hangers, were coated with a layer of concrete construction dust. There were street sweepers operating through out the airport property, for hundreds of hours, kicking up plumes of dust. Concrete dust is known as RCS (Respirable Crystalline Silica) and is a cause of lung cancer and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) to those exposed.

The air quality measuring equipment was installed the week of December 4th. Data gathering did not start until after the Thomas and Skirball fires began. With the fires, strong winds, and TFR (Temporary Flight Restrictions) for firefighting aircraft, there were less than 10% of the normal flight operations at the Santa Monica Airport. A KSMO air traffic controller said, “operators don’t want to fly with TFRs, smoke, and moderate to severe turbulence. We have had very limited jet traffic and the winds were not typically from the west, but from the northeast.” 

Based on the fires, constant construction, and lack of air traffic, the value of the air quality data collected is subjected to scrutiny, since there was never an appropriate opportunity to gather baseline indicators for the study. If the air sampling started a few weeks earlier, then the jet traffic operations and the weather would have been consistent with normal levels of operation.

The locations of the two monitoring sites further complicate the source of air pollution. The monitors are located on both sides of Bundy Drive on the east side of KSMO. These locations are heavily subjected to ground transportation from Bundy Drive and the I-10 and I-405 freeway interchanges, located adjacent and within a few thousand feet of the monitoring devices.

Scott Fruin, a USC professor in preventive medicine and an expert in air pollution exposure, was working at the monitoring site located on the east side of the airport on January 3rd. He acknowledged, “based on when these units were installed and all that was going on, (fires and construction) it may be challenging to find valuable data.”

Fruin has been a long-term collaborator with Suzanne Paulson, a UCLA professor. Ms. Paulson was serving on the Airport Commission when she first proposed this air quality study at SMO.[3] Council member Sue Himmelrich voiced support for conducting the study, saying it would provide the City with a baseline, since the study would include the period when SMO was closed. Himmelrich said it would be “best that it not be performed by a current airport commissioner, ” which led to Paulson’s resignation.[4]

The City issued a press release on November 30th, 2017, stating “Tufts University was selected through a competitive bid process…In response to calls from the Airport Commission and those concerned with the health and safety impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, the City of Santa Monica is commissioning an independent academic study of pollution levels emanating from Santa Monica Airport, coinciding with the temporary runway shortening construction closure," said City Manager Rick Cole.

It is not clear what the competitive bid process was or how Tuffs University is “independent”  since Fruin, from USC and Paulson, a recent Airport Commissioner, are the actual administers of this study.

Together, Fruin and Paulson have published many studies, including papers on Santa Monica Airport air quality and have been quoted together in news articles, including a LA Times Article on freeway pollution, published Dec 30th, 2017.[5] 

This LA Times article states that sites within 1,000 feet of any freeway are generally highest in pollution, and associated with rising rates of asthma, cancer, and a growing list of other health problems. Another article published by UCLA environmental health researchers shows findings of pollutants 1.5 miles away from the I-10 freeway.[6] The proximity of the I-405 (.9 miles) and I-10 freeway (.4 miles) to the Santa Monica Airport adds further obscurity of the data collected on the monitoring sites in the area. The U.S. Department of Transportation Administration (FHWA) stated the I-405 is the busiest interstate in America with an average of 379,000 vehicles traveling it every day. In contrast, before the runway was shortened, KSMO had an average of 240 airplane takeoff and landings per day.

One of the two air-monitoring stations in this current study is set up in the backyard of Virginia Ernst, an anti-airport activist who has lived within 500 feet the Santa Monica airport for over two decades. She had one of the six air-sampling monitors at her home in 2010 when AQMD did their study. Her house and property are recorded by the County at $105,000, but the value of her property, should she sell it, is estimated on Zillow at over $1.3 Million. According to the Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor, Ms. Ernst’s total property tax in 2017 was $1410 per year. Marty Rubin, is the founder of CRAAP, (Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution) and is a well-known and vocal anti-airport activist. He lives five blocks east of Ms. Ernst, in a home recorded at a value of $92,000. Mr. Rubin is paying $1234 per year in property taxes. Mr. Rubin’s property is currently valued at over $1.3 million. Zina Josephs is a known anti-airport activist and president of the Friends of Sunset Park association.  This neighborhood association receives financing from the City of Santa Monica for their anti-airport mailings and newsletters. Both Mr. Rubin and Ms. Josephs are on the record in support of this current air-quality study. Ms. Josephs lives in Santa Monica, eight blocks north of KSMO. She pays less than $4000 per year in property taxes, based on a home valuation of $283,000. Her current home value is estimated at over $2.3 Million on Zillow.

Two spec homes were recently built on Dewey Street, less than 500 feet and directly off the west departure end of the KSMO runway. Each sold for over $3.5 Million in 2017. Each one of these properties is now paying over $36,000 in annual property taxes.

The financial value of the property adjacent to the airport itself is well known to residents and city council members. Many developers are continuing to buy property and build new homes in the area. Eliminating jets and or closing the airport would directly affect the price of homes in the area adjacent to KSMO.

Ultimately, what is at stake is the well being of Santa Monica residents, who are still at risk from freeway pollutants and are now subject to a lack of access to emergency transports due to the shorter runway and possible limited airport operations.

 Currently, the City of Santa Monica has not fully resolved a Part 16 Complaint with the FAA that addresses over $6 Million of misappropriated funds that were diverted out of the airport fund. This air quality study appears to be another diversion of funds administered by anti airport activists without oversight or third party review.

The City of Santa Monica confirmed the $54,000 cost for this study was allocated from the Airport Fund. This study will have no determination on the operation of the airport. The extensive AQMD study in 2011 concluded, “Long-term average concentrations near…KSMO were generally similar to, and often lower than, those measured elsewhere in the South Coast Air Basin…no distinguishable concentrations gradients within the studied communities which would suggest the airport as a major source. Therefore, emissions from aircraft and other airport-related sources are not likely to significantly increase the long-term risk associated with exposure to these pollutants.”

This current study is crippled without any control sites providing baseline samples, and only two sample points within 500 feet of each other. Considering the added pollution of forest fires and airport construction during Santa Ana wind conditions, it will difficult to find value in the money spent on this study,

The Santa Monica City press release states this contract was awarded to Tufts University, but does not mention that Professor Scott Fruin at USC who has been a long-term collaborator with Airport commissioner, Suzanne Paulson, and who initiated this air quality study, are getting paid to conduct this study.

While working on the air quality testing equipment at the east end of the Airport, Scott Fruin was asked what happens to the results of this air quality study, “Ultimately the City is the client and they get to decide if they release part of the data or any data at all.  They could also choose to not release anything.”  

Mark H. Smith 1/19/18


Locations of air monitoring equipment






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