The National Guard on Thursday began a public process that will stretch for more than a year as the U.S. Air Force and the National Guard Bureau study the ways basing a squadron of supersonic F-35 warplanes in Madison could affect the city.
Air Force plans to base the jets at Truax Field have won enthusiastic support from conservatives like Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, as well as from liberals like U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.
But at an open house in the Crowne Plaza hotel, where military personnel answered questions about how the scope of a federally mandated environmental impact study will be determined, two Madison City Council members questioned whether the process was overlooking the people who may be most affected by noise and pollution from the jets.
They said low-income families who live on the North Side near Truax Field may not learn about the F-35s until it’s too late because the military is notifying the public through a few newspaper advertisements, social media notices, mailings to people who sign up for them, and posters tacked up in community centers, grocery stores and gas stations.
“That’s not going out and talking to people about what it will mean to them,” said Ald. Rebecca Kemble, who represents a North Side district.
A 1994 Executive Order requires federal agencies to make the greatest effort possible to address the disproportionately high levels of harm suffered by minority and low-income people because of government actions, including greater tolerance for environmental hazards in areas with relatively little political influence.
Christel Johnson, a National Guard Bureau employee based at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland who is helping oversee the environmental impact study, said she wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about her work.
But Kemble and Ald. Marsha Rummel said Johnson told them posters in public places were the main way the National Guard was making special efforts to hear from low-income residents, but they said it will take a greater effort.
Rummel, who represents an East Side district, said she hopes the council will pass a resolution listing questions that need to be answered by the military.
Some residents have complained that the jets could prove to be noisier than the F-16s currently stationed at Truax, and that the base poses danger from crashes and pollution from exhaust and chemical compounds used to fuel and maintain equipment.
Supporters say the new planes will ensure continued survival of the Air National Guard base and economic benefits it generates.
The Air Force announced in January that the first of the $100 million jets would arrive in 2023. A squadron of 18 F-35s and two backups will be accompanied by an active duty Air Force unit that will join the state guard’s 115th Fighter Wing. Before the basing decision is finalized, the environmental impact study would need to be completed.
The military will evaluate the impact the jets would have on air quality, noise, environmental justice, endangered species, wetlands, archaeological features, transportation, infrastructure, hazardous waste, water quality, social and economic conditions, land use, safety and operation of other aircraft, said Master Sgt. W. Michael Houk, a National Guard Bureau spokesman.
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Public comment should be submitted on the scope of the environmental impact study through April 6. There will be further opportunities to comment when the environmental impact statement is written.
The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce said Thursday that 1,700 people have signed up to join “Together Truax,” an effort to support F-35s at Truax Field.
Chamber vice president Kevin Little said he believed most people were in favor of the F-35s, and he pointed to a listening session organized last week by several city council members that attracted a few dozen opponents.
“For every 30 people that may be against the decision, there’s another 1,700 that strongly support this mission,” Little said.
Little said he didn’t think opponents could hinder the deployment of the jets with actions like those taken by residents of Burlington, Vermont.
The Burlington Air Guard Station was selected for F-35s in 2013. Despite several lawsuits and a referendum, the jets are scheduled to begin arriving in 2019.
But in a non-binding referendum Tuesday, 55 percent of Burlington voters said they didn’t want the jets.
Opponents in Burlington said they hoped the referendum results would prompt the Air Force to change its plans.
“This is a huge victory for the people of Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and all the other towns around the airport,” said James Marc Leas, a leader of the group Save Our Skies Burlington.
But newly re-elected Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, said the city was a long way from asking Air Force officials to change their minds. However, he said, he and the City Council would look at the issue.
Truax would become the second Air National Guard base with F-35s. In January, the Air Force announced that both Truax and Dannelly Field in Montgomery, Alabama, had been selected. Three regular Air Force bases have been chosen as homes for the jets.
Truax now has F-16 jets that are among the oldest still in operation. The chamber of commerce has said F-35s should help protect Truax from possible closure when the military re-evaluates its needs.
Written comments may be submitted to: Ms. Christel Johnson, National Guard Bureau, NGB/ A4AM, Shepperd Hall, 3501 Fetchet Ave., Joint Base Andrews, MD 20762–5157. Comments may also be submitted on the project website at www.ANGF35EIS.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.