Wisconsin remains top pick for F-35 program despite impacts outlined in final study
By CHRIS HUBBUCH | The Wisconsin State | Published: February 20, 2020
MADISON, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — Madison remains the top candidate to host a squadron of F-35 fighter jets despite the Air Force’s findings that there would be greater environmental impacts there than in three of its alternative sites.
In a final environmental impact study (EIS) released Wednesday, the Air Force maintained that basing the jets with the Wisconsin Air National Guard would expose about 1,019 households to average daily noise levels above 65 decibels, a level deemed “incompatible” with residential use — though not uninhabitable.
Of the five bases under consideration, only Michigan’s Selfridge would see more people affected by increased noise levels.
The noise would disproportionately affect low-income and minority residents, which would also be the case in Michigan and Montgomery, Alabama, which the Air Force has identified as its top choice for a subsequent squadron of the $90 million fighter jets.
While maintaining the jets would have a “negligible impact” on Madison’s housing market, the final study acknowledges lost property values could cost the county up to 0.27% of its tax base. That works out to about $189 million based on 2019 values.
The Air Force posted the 1,475-page document on its website Wednesday, a little more than a week ahead of its planned publication in the Federal Register. That will kick off a 30-day waiting period before Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett can make a final basing decision.
Chris Arenz, executive director of the Badger Air Community Council and a booster of the F-35s, said he was pleased to see Madison remains the preferred alternative.
“It looks like they were very comprehensive in addressing the comments that were submitted,” Arenz said. “We still feel very positive that we will get a favorable decision.”
Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce spokesman Erik Greenfield reiterated Arenz’s comments.
The Chamber of Commerce has been among the most vocal proponents of the F-35 program, which it says will boost the local economy, create dozens of jobs and ensure the viability of the 115th Fighter Wing and it’s estimated $99 million annual economic impact.
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.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, a vocal opponent of the jets, said the Air Force failed to consider the full impact of noise on schools and day care centers or of construction in areas contaminated with hazardous PFAS chemicals associated with the use of firefighting foam.
“The Final EIS for this proposal confirms what many of us already knew: that these jets are wrong for our community,” the Madison Democrat said. “The bottom line is that it is highly inappropriate to place such jets at an Air National Guard Base in such a dense, residential and urban environment.”
Steve Klafka, an environmental engineer affiliated with Safe Skies Clean Waters, which opposes the F-35s, said he was disappointed the Air Force limited its noise modeling to the 65-decibel standard rather than look at the number of people who would be exposed to slightly lower but still potentially detrimental levels.
“This is an environmental impact statement. It’s meant to kind of explain the impacts,” he said. “We know noise has impacts on health and education, but they kind of blew the rest of that off.”
According to the final EIS, the F-35 would be about 5 decibels louder than the current F-16s on takeoff. The threshold for human perception is generally a change of about 3 decibels, while an increase of 10 decibels is perceived as doubling the noise level.
Homes within the 65-decibel zone could potentially qualify for the Federal Aviation Administration’s sound mitigation program. That would require Dane County to conduct a study estimated to cost more than $1 million, and recent research revealed hundreds of homes near the airport are subject to easements that could preclude owners from receiving federal funding.
Klafka also questioned the Air Force’s refusal to identify chemicals in the jets’ exhaust or to model the air quality impacts on neighborhoods near the airport.
Despite claims from F-35 supporters that the draft study presented a “worst case” scenario, the Air Force stuck to its original estimate of 6,122 operations per year, which is roughly 27% more than the current number of F-16 flights.
While new flight simulators would be “used extensively,” the Air Force said that training would be in addition to and not a substitute for actual flights.
Arenz, a former F-16 pilot, said he was disappointed by the use of a maximum potential impact rather than what he believes will be a significantly lower number of flights as a result of bad weather, future deployments or airborne fueling.
The final study includes responses to some of the questions and concerns posed in 6,419 public comments on the draft environmental impact study, which was published in August.
According to the Air Force, concerns about noise, disagreement over the way noise levels were modeled, and the disproportionate impact on poor and minority residents were the most frequently cited issues.
The Air Force said “substantive comments” — such as those challenging analyses or methodologies or identifying omissions — were “fully considered and addressed” in the final draft “as appropriate.” There was no response to comments that expressed an opinion for or against the project or some aspect.
Citing concerns about contaminated groundwater, noise and the impact on low-income neighborhoods and children, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, the City Council and the Madison School Board have all asked the Air Force to find another place for the planes.
The Department of Natural Resources also found shortcomings with the draft environmental study.
Rhodes-Conway was not available to comment Wednesday on the final report.
Ald. Syed Abbas, who represents the district just south of the airport, said he was disappointed that the Air Force has not reconsidered and that he would continue fighting to keep the jets out of Madison.
State Journal reporter Chris Rickert contributed to this report.