Opponents of F-35 fighter jets continue sounding alarm

Abigail Becker | The Capital Times Feb 27, 2020

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Flanked by opponents of siting F-35 fighter jets in Madison, Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, highlights the health and environmental consequences of Air Force’s proposal.

Activists pushing against the Air Force siting a fleet of F-35 fighter jets at Madison’s Truax Field continue pushing for more information and warning about the potential harmful consequences to Madison residents and the environment.

Last week, the Air Force published the project’s final Environmental Impact Statement, which confirmed Madison as the the “preferred alternative” for a fleet of F-35 fighter jets. This is the last step before the Air Force issues a final decision on the siting of the jets.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said at a press conference Thursday that basing the jet nearby residential areas is “ill-advised.”

“We know the serious increase in noise that our communities are going to experience are going to have a significant, disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations as well as children, resulting in environmental injustice to these communities,” Taylor said. “It will worsen the severe racial inequities that already plague our city and county.”

The jets would replace the Air National Guard 115 Fighter Wing’s aging fleet of F-16s. If Madison is chosen, a fleet of 18 F-35s would arrive at Truax in 2023.

The Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that the jets will be louder than the F-16s based there now, and the number of flight missions will increase by 47%. It also notes that the impact falls mostly on neighborhoods near the airfield, where many residents are minority and low-income. The report estimates that 1,318 households and 2,766 people would be exposed to noise levels of at least 65 decibels, rendering about 199 acres of land “potentially incompatible” with residential use.

“This issue isn’t about noise and the inconvenience of it. It’s about protecting the most vulnerable people in our community: babies, children, pregnant people, veterans with PTSD, low income families and people of color,” said Tehmina Islam, a resident of the Eken Park neighborhood and licensed midwife.

Concerns about noise, lack of clarity about the impact of the noise and concern about the disproportionate impact on low-income and minority residents were highlighted in a summary of 6,400 public comments about the prospect of bringing the jets to Madison that were released two weeks ago by the Air Force.

Though the final decision will likely come in late March, signals point to Madison being a sure pick. Congress has already authorized $34 million for F-35-related construction at Truax.

The environmental report lists Madison as the preferred alternative for the F-35s and Montgomery, Alabama, as the preferred alternative for another F-35 fleet. Three other potential sites — Boise, Idaho; Jacksonville, Florida; and Selfridge Air National Guard base in Michigan — were also listed in the final Environmental Impact Statement.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a blog post Thursday she has been “unimpressed” with how the National Environmental Policy Act, established in the 1970s to require the federal government to consider the impact of its actions on people and the planet,” has been implemented.

“What is the point of assessing environmental impacts if those impacts are found to be severe and then they go ignored?” Rhodes-Conway said. “The final report indicates that there are lesser environmental impacts at three alternative sites. I recognize that a decision will be made by the USAF whether or not the city of Madison has any opinion on this matter, but I urge the Secretary of the Air Force to be true to the purpose and intent of the NEPA law.”

Ald. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, who represents an area near Truax, spoke of the neurological and physiological effects noise can have on a person. As local leaders, she and fellow Ald. Syed Abbas, District 12, are urging opposition to the fighter jets for the “sake of this community,” Abbas said.

“It’s up to us who live here, who live on the ground, who live with our neighbors, who literally take care of the water, to stand up for that and stand up for neighbors and say, ‘No, you can’t create a dead zone in our city.”

Opponents are also worried that, absent of extensive remediation, construction at the base would release pollutants into the air and water.

Truax is a known source of several toxic chemicals that have spilled into Starkweather Creek, which empties into Lake Monona. Among those are PFAS, a class of synthetic compounds used in firefighting foam that had been sprayed during training exercises at the airfield for decades. The compounds have been linked to cancer and other serious health issues.

“The cost and harm is just too great to our community. We will not risk our clean water,” Taylor said.

Opponents have spoken out against the proposed beddown of the fighter jets for months. The Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition is organizing a protest parade, starting at Wright and Anderson streets to Truax on Feb. 29.

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has supported the F-35 proposal, noting that the new jets would continue the 115th Fighter Wing’s 1,200 jobs and $100 million in local economic impact. It would also bring in 64 new permanent jobs and 315 to 420 construction jobs.

Without the F-35s, the 115th Fighter Wing would have less military value and be more at risk of closing, according to a memo from the chamber last October.

“What this new mission brings is really keeping the base open for another 30 to 40 years,” said Chris Arenz, executive Director of the Badger Air Community Council and retired f-16 pilot from the 115th Fighter Wing. “The alternative really means the base going away and losing all of those jobs.”

For those who are concerned, Arenz pointed out that the final Environmental Impact Statement represents the worst-case scenario.

In a letter to Rhodes-Conway, the Wisconsin National Guard’s interim leader Gen. Joane Mathews said the final Environmental Impact Statement represents the “maximum potential impact.” Mathews estimates that the number of operations of F-35s at Truax will be similar to the number of operations as F-16s.

Jesse Pycha-Holst, with Solidarity Realty, questioned if the economic benefits are worth it. According to the final Environmental Impact Statement, socioeconomic effects related to the F-35 beddown “would not be significant overall.”

“This deal being offered to Madison is that in exchange for a negligible economic impact to the positive, we should cause children, minorities and our environment to suffer,” Pycha-Holst said.