National Guard sued over environmental review of F-35 projects at Truax Field

December 7, 2020
Chris Hubbuch | Wisconsin State Journal

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A group opposed to basing F-35 fighter jets in Madison is suing the National Guard over its environmental review of construction to prepare Truax Field to host the new planes.

Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin claims the National Guard Bureau violated federal environmental law by “failing to adequately study and disclose” the effects of 27 projects expected to begin early next year.

The Air Force earlier this year selected the 115th Fighter Wing as one of two units to get the next batch of the $90 million F-35s, which will replace the current fleet of 33-year-old F-16s. The first planes are scheduled to arrive in 2023.

Safe Skies Clean Water is asking the court to block construction and require the guard to complete a full review of the projects, which include a flight simulator building and aircraft shelters and are expected to cost up to $60 million.
In a complaint filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for Western Wisconsin, the group alleges the military disregarded the potential impact the projects will have on harmful chemicals known as PFAS, which have been found in soil and groundwater under the base and are believed to be connected to contamination of Starkweather Creek, Lake Monona and at least one Madison municipal well.
Spokespeople for the Wisconsin National Guard and 115th Fighter Wing did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Specifically, Safe Skies Clean Water says the National Guard Bureau should have required an environmental impact statement rather than the more cursory environmental assessment that was done, and that the projects should have been reviewed under the environmental impact statement the Air Force prepared for the F-35 basing decision.

“It happens a lot. People try to separate projects out to avoid the bigger requirements,” said Steven Klafka, an environmental engineer and coordinator of Safe Skies Clean Water. “We’re asking the court to agree and stop any construction.”
Safe Skies Clean Water previously challenged the environmental review of the basing decision.

The construction projects are expected to result in the disturbance of about 25 acres, which the groups say could further distribute PFAS, which have been linked to cancer, liver disease and reproductive problems.

The complaint notes the National Guard determined the projects would have no significant environmental impact in October 2019, the same month it released a report documenting PFAS in soil and groundwater and recommending further investigation to determine the extent of contamination.

“The study said do more work in evaluating where the pollutants are going, and the National Guard Bureau didn’t do it,” said Kathleen Henry, the attorney for Safe Skies Clean Water.

The DNR in 2018 informed the 115th Fighter Wing, along with the Dane County Regional Airport and the city of Madison, that they were responsible for PFAS contamination at former firefighter training sites known as burn pits near the base.

The National Guard agreed to take the lead on the required investigation, but the Pentagon has not provided funding or authorization to conduct that investigation. Last fall the DNR threatened legal action if the National Guard did not take action.

“The Air Force has made it pretty clear they’re not going to provide money for the cleanup,” Klafka said. “They’ll provide money for the jets but not the cleanup.”