Foes urge Dane County to oppose F-35s, which look increasingly likely; county says it is powerless

The Capital Times  |  24 Jan 2020  |  Steven Elbow

 

“Several activists on Thursday urged a Dane County committee to “get the ball rolling” to oppose bringing F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard base at Truax Field before the possible start of construction this spring, but county officials say there’s little they can do.

Josh Wescott, chief of staff for County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement Friday that “the federal government will unilaterally make the decision of what happens with this project.”

About 30 opponents of F-35s and others concerned about high levels of PFAS at the airfield and in Starkweather Creek descended on a county Lakes and Watershed Commission meeting Thursday amid worries that construction will start without measures to prevent PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds — from spilling into the already polluted creek. The chemicals have been linked to cancer and other serious health concerns.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act passed last fall approved $34 million worth of construction related to F-35s at Truax, which has led some opponents to believe that the decision to bring the planes to Madison has already been made.

Construction would start with a $14 million flight simulator facility and fighter alert shelters, which house the planes and which would cost $20 million. Seventeen other F-35 projects at an estimated cost of $86 million would follow in coming years.

In a statement provided to the Cap Times Friday, Dane County Regional Airport spokesman Brent McHenry said the county has little say in what the federal government decides to do at Truax.

The land lease with the US government signed in 1983 allows the government the right to erect structures within the leased land for government related needs or requirements,” he said. “The County does not provide oversight to improvements on the Government land lease.”

Neither the city nor the county — which with the National Guard have been named by the state Department of Natural Resources as parties responsible for PFAS contamination at Truax — have authority over the military’s construction plans, he said.

“The National Guard Bureau is the responsible party for runoff, remediation, and any potential clean-up of contaminated soil or water,” he said.

Madison is one of two finalists — along with Montgomery, Alabama — for housing the jets.

Construction at the base is awaiting final Air Force approval for Truax to house the state-of-the-art fighter jets, which would replace the aging fleet of F-16s. That decision would follow the release of a final environmental impact statement.

How the Air National Guard — which would operate and maintain the F-35s — the state Department of Natural Resources and local officials would deal with contamination on a tight timeline is uncertain.

The state DNR would need to issue any permits related to environmental issues before construction would begin.

In an email this week, Guard spokesman Joe Trovato said “it would be premature to discuss any potential associated construction projects or timelines until” a final decision to site the F-35s at Truax is made.

But DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye, said Thursday, “The DNR is actively meeting with the National Guard regarding environmental issues at Truax and how to proceed if any development occurred at the facility.”

Public officials in Madison have urged the federal government to rethink its proposal to bring the fighter jets here.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in November asked the Pentagon to reconsider siting the planes at Truax, weeks after the City Council and the School Board made similar requests.

Some activists who have been trying to thwart the F-35 bed-down at Truax saw Thursday’s meeting as a chance to bring the issue to county officials as the federal government seems poised to start construction on a tight timeline.

The work would require massive disturbance to the soil.

It would also, according former DNR environmental specialist Lance Green, require dewatering, a process that involves pumping water to keep the water table at a level that makes construction possible.

“That dewatering will just be going right into the creek” he told commissioners.

Speakers at the meeting were concerned that PFAS and a host of other contaminants known to exist in the soil and groundwater at Truax will become dislodged and enter the creek, which flows to Lake Monona, through the stormwater system.

What is safe to eat?

The state issued a fish advisory last week for the creek and Lake Monona after testing revealed high levels of PFAS in fish samples. PFAS from firefighting foam used for decades at Truax and nearby properties are believed to be the main source of the contamination.

The advisory warns anglers to limit consumption of largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye and yellow perch caught in Lake Monona and Starkweather Creek to one meal a month, as well as common carp caught in Lake Monona. Bluegill should be limited to once a week. 

 

“The soil and groundwater at the base are heavily, highly contaminated,” said Maria Powell, director of the Midwest Environmental Organization. “We know there are really high levels in shallow groundwater, in soils, and when they dig that up it’s inevitable that more PFAs and a lot of other contaminants will slosh right into the creek.”

Michael Farin, a chemical engineer who lives near Starkweather Creek and near the proposed F-35 flight path, said Air Force officials are assuming that communities will ultimately be powerless to prevent the coming of the F-35s.

“The federal government is playing chicken,” he said.

He asked the commission to “start the ball rolling by recommending to the Board of Supervisors to stand up … before the Air Force is allowed to bring in a bunch of bulldozers and stir up the mess.”

Robert Moore, a toxicologist, complained that officials have not been serious about PFAS, the dangers of which are still being uncovered. The chemicals, used since the 1950s in non-stick surfaces, water resistant fabrics, food wrappers and thousands of other commercial applications, are widespread. They exist in nearly every human and are nearly indestructible in the environment.

“The science is often decades behind the use,” he said. 

Chemist Kevin Cunningham urged commissioners, “We have to suspend any plans for construction or demolition on the airfield before an environmental study has been done, the effects are understood and the entire area has been decontaminated.” 

 

Absent at Thursday’s meeting was any talk of noise concerns from the F-35s, which the draft environmental impact statement last year would impact nearby neighborhoods, which are largely low-income and racially diverse.

A draft environmental impact report last estimates that 2,215 people would be exposed to elevated sound levels from the F-35s, compared to the current F-16 fleet and render about 199 acres “potentially incompatible for residential use.”

 

  • Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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