Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is asking the Pentagon to reconsider Madison as a preferred site to host a squadron of F-35 jets, outlining concerns about pollution, noise and the disproportionate burden that will be placed on some of the city’s poorest residents.
In a 14-page letter submitted Friday, the final day for public comment on the military’s draft environmental impact statement, Rhodes-Conway said even proponents of the new mission for the Wisconsin National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing question whether the study takes into account all relevant factors.
She provides dozens of questions to be answered in the final assessment as well as conditions the city wants met.
Rhodes-Conway asks that the Air Force and Wisconsin Air National Guard complete a full site investigation of Truax Field to determine the extent of soil and groundwater contamination from a group of hazardous chemicals known as PFAS and for the Guard to clean up any contamination that resulted from its use of the base.
While preliminary investigations have found significant contamination, there has been no remediation work. As a result, the mayor said the pollution is pushed further from the base with each rainfall, and the chemicals associated with firefighting foam used at the base have turned up in a city well.
Rhodes-Conway said the city does not accept the National Guard’s position that cleanup is not a priority because the concentration of PFOS and PFOA in Well 15 are below federal health advisories.
The letter comes one day after the state Department of Natural Resources pointed out similar shortcomings in the Air Force’s analysis of PFAS contamination.
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 possible PFAS contamination at former firefighter training sites — known as burn pits — near the base.
The 115th agreed to take the lead on the required investigation, which it said would be done as part of a nationwide study of bases expected to be completed by September, but Capt. Joe Trovato said the Pentagon has not provided funding or authorization for the Wisconsin National Guard to conduct that investigation.
The mayor also faults the Air Force’s sound modeling, saying it has created “considerable confusion and deep community concern.”
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She notes the metric used to create noise contour maps, known as the Day Night Average Sound Level (DNL), provides a cumulative measure of sound from multiple sources rather than a measure of specific events — like a jet taking off — and asked the Air Force to provide a map showing how peak volumes would be experienced instead.
The mayor also said the noise analysis understates the impact on low-income residents and people of color and fails to evaluate the impact on public housing in and near areas where the noise will be loudest.
The final two
The Pentagon has identified Madison and Montgomery, Alabama, as the preferred sites for two squadrons of F-35s as soon as 2023.
A final decision by the secretary of the Air Force is expected in March, 30 days after the final environmental impact study is released.
If selected, Truax would require up to $120 million in construction to prepare for the new planes. Planning is already underway for $34 million worth of projects that could start next year if the mission is granted.
Rhodes-Conway also took the Air Force to task for the public engagement process, noting materials were not provided in languages other than English, and the public meeting was held at the Alliant Energy Center, more than an hour by public transit from the most-affected neighborhoods.
“While the draft (environmental impact study) may check the box of what public process and participation needs to occur,” she wrote, “Madison and its residents expect better and more accurate information and a process accessible to all residents.”
A spokesman for the Wisconsin National Guard did not respond to a request for comment on the mayor’s letter Friday.
The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has been the leading proponent of the F-35 mission, which is expected to create dozens of new jobs and ensure the long-term viability of the 115th Fighter Wing and its $100 million annual economic impact.
Chamber President Zach Brandon defended the process.
“There has been a robust public process relating to the basing of the F-35A,” Brandon said in a statement. “With the public comment period now concluded, we look forward to the substantive questions being addressed in the final Environmental Impact Statement.”