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F-35 opponents file second federal lawsuit over decision to base jets at Truax Field

By CHRIS HUBBUCH | The Wisconsin State Journal | Published: March 10, 2021

MADISON, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — A group opposed to basing F-35 fighter jets in Madison has filed a second lawsuit challenging the military's environmental review.

In a complaint filed Wednesday in federal court, Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin says the Air Force and National Guard Bureau failed to follow the law when it considered the impacts of its basing decision.

The Air Force last year selected the 115th Fighter Wing as one of two units to get the next batch of F-35s, which will replace the current fleet of 33-year-old F-16s. The first planes are scheduled to arrive in 2023.

The nonprofit group says the military didn't adequately consider the impact of noise, air and groundwater pollution that could result.

"Truax is the worst location for these fighter jets," said Steven Klafka, an environmental engineer and member of Safe Skies.

According to the environmental assessment, the F-35 jets will be louder and — at least initially — fly more frequently than the current F-16s, which the group says cause detrimental personal, physical, mental health, educational and economic impacts.

Safe Skies says its members will suffer from toxic "forever chemicals" linked to the use of firefighting foam that could be further spread into groundwater, Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona as a result of construction needed to prepare for the jets.

According to the complaint, the military failed to follow federal environmental law because the environmental review did not explore alternatives to replacing the aging F-16s nor did it "take a hard look" at the impact on some 60,000 people who live within three miles of the base, including minority and low-income residents who will be disproportionately affected.

The complaint also alleges the military chose the sites — Madison and Montgomery, Ala. — with the greatest adverse impact to people, making the decision "arbitrary and capricious."

"This is not acceptable," said Kathleen Henry, an attorney representing Safe Skies.

The suit asks the court to block any additional permitting or construction activity until the military completes a supplemental environmental review.

Spokespeople for the National Guard and Air Force did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Safe Skies Clean Water sued the National Guard Bureau in December over its separate environmental review of the construction projects.

The group has asked the U.S. District Court for Western Wisconsin to block construction until the National Guard does a more thorough review of those projects, which include a flight simulator building and new aircraft shelters and are expected to cost up to $60 million.

In that case, the group alleged the military disregarded the potential impact the projects will have on harmful chemicals known as PFAS, which have been found in soil and groundwater under the base and are believed to be connected to contamination of Starkweather Creek, Lake Monona and at least one Madison municipal well.

They also argued those impacts should have been considered as part of the overall analysis the Air Force conducted for the F-35 basing decision.

The court has scheduled a preliminary conference call next week in that case.

The construction projects are expected to result in the disturbance of about 25 acres, which the groups say could further distribute PFAS, which have been linked to cancer, liver disease and reproductive problems.

In 2018, the Department of Natural Resources informed the 115th Fighter Wing, along with the Dane County Regional Airport and the city of Madison, that they were responsible for PFAS contamination at former firefighter training sites known as burn pits near the base. The National Guard agreed to take the lead on the required investigation, but the Pentagon has not provided funding or authorization.

Last month Dane County's environmental committee approved changes to a resolution opposing the F-35s which includes language intended to prevent the National Guard from starting any demolition or construction projects until PFAS remediation plans are in place. The resolution has yet to be considered by the full board of supervisors.

"We want them funded and we want them begun," said Supervisor Yogesh Chawla, who authored the amendment.

While the pending court cases will not delay construction, Safe Skies members say they hope recent developments — including a Pentagon review of the F-35 program, the potential for Congress to cut the defense budget and the Federal Aviation Administration's new research on how airplane noise affects communities — could result in a change of plans for the Truax mission.

"We haven't given up," said Vicki Berenson.

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