Activists continue to push back against the Air Force’s decision to locate fighter planes in Madison.
by Alice Herman, April 24, 2020
On April 15, the U.S. Air Force announced that it had chosen Madison, Wisconsin, to host a squadron of new F-35 fighter jets at the Truax Field Air National Guard base, on the city’s northeast side.
For more than a year, Madison residents organized against the Air Force’s proposal. Now that it has passed, opponents signaled their intention to keep fighting—literally—by staging a protest in cars that circled the state Capitol, horns honking.
The group Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin has warned that the F-35s program will increase the water pollution caused by the airbase and disproportionately impact low income people of color in neighborhoods adjacent to the base.
In October 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released a report documenting the spread of PFAS, the highly toxic “forever chemicals” found in teflon and fire-fighting foam. A dangerous concentration of PFAS was found in a creek that runs along the edge of the Truax airbase, before feeding into Lake Monona, one of Madison’s two largest lakes.
By 2020, the DNR found that fish in Lake Monona carried dangerous levels of PFAS, and warned against consuming carp, perch, walleye, and largemouth bass caught in the lake. Fishermen interviewed by The Capital Times said they were unfazed by the warning and in the weeks after the January announcement, ice fishing tents still dotted the frozen lake.
PFAS is shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of chemicals used to make products like Teflon, paint, and fire-fighting foam. Sometimes, as in one well located near the Truax air base, PFAS chemicals show up in drinking water. If you’ve lived in the United States, PFAS are very likely in your bloodstream already. High levels of PFAS in people are associated with liver damage, thyroid disease, and cancer.
That PFAS chemicals have been found in Madison’s drinking water is consistent with data suggesting that most water sources in the United States, including rainwater, contain the chemicals. But the comparatively high levels of PFAS found in the groundwater on the city’s north side reflect a trend associated with water sources near industrial facilities.
Because military bases often use fire-fighting foam containing PFAS, higher levels of the chemicals often appear in drinking water near bases like the one in Madison. Data compiled by the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group—and collected by the Department of Defense—shows 678 sites across the country where military bases were suspected of introducing PFAS contaminants into the water, and 328 where the chemicals were found in drinking water next to a base.
In Wisconsin, where the DNR has repeatedly called on the Truax air base to investigate and mitigate ongoing PFAS contamination—so far, to no avail—residents of the affected neighborhoods call the military’s decision to expand the base disappointing but not unexpected.
“This was not a surprise,” says Tehmina Islam, a midwife who lives on the city’s north side and has been a longstanding opponent of the F-35s program. “As a person of color, and coming from a low-income family, I am not surprised that the United States’ national leadership, and sometimes local leadership, would be willing to sacrifice low income people and people of color for the sake of money and military.”
According to a city of Madison report on the F-35s program, “Nearly every impacted area within the city of Madison belongs to a census tract with rates of persons of color well above the city- and county-wide averages.”
In Burlington, Vermont, where an F-35s program was instituted last year despite community resistance, the Air Force indicated that the noise from the F-35 jets could have an adverse effect on residents’ health, possibly causing hearing loss and learning impairment in children.
The Richardson School, which serves students with special needs, falls within the high-decibel areas on a map that projects the noise caused by the Madison F-35s program. The same report diagnosed the areas falling within the sixty-five-decibel range as “incompatible with residential use.”
Eugenia Highland Granados, head of the Madison YWCA’s restorative justice program—which has opposed the F-35s program—lives within the sixty-five-decibel range identified.
“It gives me a lot of anxiety because I’ve been trying to settle and establish for a while as an immigrant. And I thought that this was it. I thought that I have found, and have been privileged enough to create, a home,” Highland, who immigrated from Mexico, says in an interview. “[My home has] been a place where people from my community get together. Latinx youth have had organizing meetings here. It felt like we were in a good place.”
For Highland, opposing the F-35s is as much an act of community resistance as it is a principled position against military expansion, more broadly. “Those F-35s are planes that are going to be killing people in countries that are being impacted by American imperialism and intervention,” she says. “So this is global white supremacy. That’s what this represents.”
Likewise, the anti-war organization Win Without War has blasted U.S. legislators from both parties who have backed the F-35s program. “Infuriating doesn’t even begin to describe it,” wrote Stephen Miles, the organization’s executive director.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin endorsed the fighter jet program and drew the anger of activists opposing the program. Islam says that Baldwin remains a critical actor in the program’s realization.
“I do see Tammy Baldwin’s support as a major lynchpin in why the air force might have chosen Madison,” Islam says. “She will continue to be a target in terms of our actions.”
Baldwin isn’t the only “progressive” Senator who has pushed the military program. In Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders backed the implementation of Burlington’s F-35s program.
Public reception of the F-35 decision, announced on the same day that Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued the extension of his Safer at Home order—Wisconsin’s social distancing mandate—mirrors the dispute over economic and public health that has emerged since the onset of the pandemic. Business interests in the city, including the Madison Chamber of Commerce, have touted the F-35s program for the projected “dozens of jobs” that the Air Force estimates it could bring.
“I think that the irony of gaining sixty-five military jobs when you’re going to lose value [on] a thousand homes and over 2,000 people will be impacted,” Islam says. “That math just doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I want people to know that the fight is not over, we are going to continue to organize for years to come,” Islam continues. “The jets won’t be placed until 2023. We’re wanting community members to know that we’re thousands of people strong and we are going to continue to fight this.”