We won’t stop’: Opposition to F-35 jets in Madison remains strong

Wisconsin State Journal – July 9, 2021 | Logan Wroge

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Minutes before a news conference by local and state leaders opposing the basing of F-35 fighter jets in Madison was to start Thursday, a series of five F-16 jets en route to land at Truax Field flew right over the East Side park where everyone was gathered, sending a loud, piercing noise throughout the area.

“Now we heard those jets fly over just a couple minutes ago, and that was loud, but they get much louder than that,” Omar Poler, an Eken Park neighborhood resident, said at Washington Manor Park. “What we’re facing here is not noise, it’s harm.”

“This neighborhood and neighborhoods around this area — North Side, East Side — it’s family-oriented neighborhoods,” said City Council President Syed Abbas, 12th District. “It is extremely painful while you sit in your own house to listen to these planes. The house rattles, literally. This is an environmental justice situation.”

Last year, the Air Force chose the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing as the host of a squadron of the $90 million F-35 jets. The first jets are expected to arrive in 2023 and are set to replace the current fleet of 1980s-model F-16s.

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Barry Adams | Wisconsin State Journal
Boosters of the squadron have touted the economic impact of up to $120 million in construction projects and dozens of new jobs associated with the jets.

Maj. Joe Trovato, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Air National Guard, said in an email the 115th Fighter Wing is “100 percent committed to being good neighbors.” He said the new generation of fighter jets would help secure the future of the base and its hundreds of jobs for decades.

“We understand that some in the community have valid concerns, but our hope is that we can work together as a community to address those concerns to ensure that bringing the F-35 to Madison is a win for everyone in the community,” he said.

While deep opposition remains, particularly around pollution and noise opponents say will disproportionately affect low-income people and communities of color living around the airport, it’s unclear what — if any — action could stall or stop the jets arriving.

Environmental concerns stem from contamination of toxic “forever chemicals,” known as PFAS, at the airport where firefighters have used fluorinated foams for decades, and advocates worry construction could further disburse PFAS.

A contract to construct a $9 million, 19,000-square-foot F-35 simulation facility was awarded in April. Trovato said initial site prep for that facility is underway, but “they have not yet broken ground on the facility.”

State Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, said the COVID-19 pandemic took momentum away from the community organizing opposition to the jets but she sees it reemerging now.

“We want to ensure that we represent the people who will be most harmed by these jets,” Hong said. “It’s important they have a platform, a voice and a continued pathway to know that there’s ways to fight this, and we won’t stop.”

Dane County Sup. Yogesh Chawla and five other supervisors last month introduced a resolution that would:

  • Direct the county’s attorney to explore legal options for regulating construction at the airport.
  • Require public disclosure of tests and results for PFAS.
  • Examine options to halt construction if PFAS tests come back above certain thresholds.

The resolution would also state the County Board’s opposition to basing the jets in Madison. But with the decision on where the F-35s go in the hands of the military, the statement would be purely symbolic.

“The actionable items in the resolution really emphasize public disclosure of information and asking our county’s legal office to provide us with legal options of what we can do,” Chawla said. “I think the community just needs to keep the pressure on.”

The environmental review process leading up to the Air Force’s decision is the subject of two federal lawsuits filed in December and March by Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin.