By CHRIS HUBBUCH
Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The fate of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of construction hangs in the balance as Madison officials ask the Air Force to reconsider the city’s Truax Field as a preferred site for a squadron of F-35s amid increasingly vocal opposition from residents.
Planning is already underway at Truax for $34 million worth of construction projects that would move forward if Madison were selected. Air Force officials say they need a 19,000-square-foot building to house four F-35 flight simulators, which would be used to train pilots on the new aircraft. Also being sought are new shelters that would be used to house the 115th Fighter Wing’s four existing F-16s while the proposed F-35s were stationed in an existing shelter. If the plans are approved, the Air National Guard would begin construction next fall.
But the project still must overcome some steep obstacles. With many questions still unanswered, 15 Dane County supervisors have signed a letter signalling their opposition. Such resistance might amount to little, though. History suggests the Pentagon, even after gathering public opinion on a 1,099-page environmental-impact statement published in August, will be unlikely to reverse course.
The Air Force, which has identified Madison and Montgomery, Alabama, as the preferred sites for two more squadrons of the $90 million jets, has never rescinded an initial location decision, said Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and an ardent supporter of the project.
Before selecting a site, military officials conduct detailed environmental studies taking into possible account noise and other sources of concern.
“They don’t just throw a dart at a map and pick a place,” he said. “They have an extensive review process.”
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, who has been involved with these sorts of decisions since 2011, said the final choice could still change. But she said she has never heard of such a reversal happening in any of the hundreds of decisions — concerning both personnel and equipment — she’s familiar with.
“I’m not aware of any that had any issues,” Stefanek said.
A final decision by the secretary of the Air Force is expected in February, 30 days after the project’s final environmental-impact study is to be released. Friday is the deadline for comments on a related draft study.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, who represents neighborhoods near the airport and has emerged as a leading voice of opposition to the project, said there are too many unknowns for the Air Force to move ahead with plans to bring the jets to the state’s capital city.
Taylor, who would like to see the Air Force allow more time for studying the project, said she hopes public-comment proceedings are more than a formality. She thinks residents should have a say in whether the jets come here.
“It’s not supposed to be a done deal,” she said. “I’m still not a cynic about government and the ability of people to influence government. I still believe people have a powerful say.”
Brandon said the Air Force has considered most of the concerns and is unlikely to be swayed by those who are opposed to the jets because of a general dislike of warfare and the “military industrial complex.” At the same time, he acknowledged that federal representatives have raised valid questions about the assumptions used in proposing methods to mitigate any resulting noise.
“The local discussion does matter,” Brandon said.
Although current plans call for the construction needed for the F-35s to begin next fall, city employees have suggested the National Guard can’t “safely and legally” start that work without having a complete site investigation to test for the presence of chemicals known as PFAS. Contamination from these substances, which is often associated with firefighting foam long used in training, recently led to the shutting down of a city well near the airport.
In several recent environmental studies, including the one undertaken in Madison, the National Guard has said F-35s use afterburners on fewer than 5% of their takeoffs. That’s far below the 60% rate seen for F-16s.
But a recently leaked email — sent by an environmental compliance officer at the Davis-Monthan base in Tucson to Roseanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel and former Burlington city council member who is opposed to having F-35s in Madison — raises questions about the validity of those figures. The email said Air Force lawyers want noise studies to assume higher percentages of afterburner use.
“They know this has been a problem for years and years and years,” Greco said.
Greco said even with afterburners being used only 10% of the time, that could greatly increase the number of homes that are being exposed to intolerable noise levels.
“The Air Force has to tell us,” she said. “They’re required under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) to tell people when there’s a chance of a significant impact.”