Environmental group files new lawsuit over F-35 decision

By: - March 11, 2021 6:45 am
F_35 fighter jet

Image provided by the Ministry of Defence of a Royal Air Force F-35 Lightning. (Photo by Ministry of Defence via Getty Images)

A group seeking to halt the siting of a squadron of F-35 fighter jets at Madison’s Truax Field filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Air Force.

After several years of contentious debate, in February 2020 the Air Force confirmed that it had chosen Madison’s Truax Field and a site in Montgomery, Alabama, from five possible sites, to host F-35 squadrons. The jets are due to arrive in 2023.

At issue in the lawsuit filed by Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin is the disproportionate impact of noise and water pollution on the population of Madison’s north and east sides.

“We are arguing the Air Force did not adequately consider the impacts on low-income and minority populations who lived by Truax and will suffer the most from these planes,” said Kathleen Henry of Dairyland Public Interest Law, the group’s lawyer, at a Zoom press conference announcing the lawsuit. “And we’re asking them in court to require the Air Force to prepare an adequate environmental impact statement.”

In a written statement, Safe Skies Clean Water said the Air Force “acted arbitrarily and capriciously by failing to follow procedures required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)” and “acted illegally by failing to adequately study and disclose the significant environmental effects of the F-35 jets.”

PFAS chemicals

Marines fighting fires with foam
Marines fighting fires with foam, a product that uses PFAS (Photo: Lance Cpl. Shawn Valosin/U.S. Marine Corps

The lawsuit occurs in the midst of growing public awareness regarding the harmful effect of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The substances, known as “forever chemicals” exist in high levels in Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona, and are linked with firefighting foam used at Truax. The city of Madison and the Department of Natural Resources issued a fish advisory in 2020. PFAS chemicals are associated with higher rates of cancer, immune system deficiencies and endocrine disruption. Gov. Tony Evers has proposed spending more than $20 million to clean up PFAS-contaminated waters throughout the state in his 2021-23 biennial budget. 

Dane County Supv. Yogesh Chawla believes it is irresponsible to allow further construction at Truax to accommodate a new squadron while the contamination continues to endanger people and wildlife.

“We have to be really mindful as a county of what we can do to keep the people who live here safe,” Chawla tells Wisconsin Examiner. “One of the most precious things we have in our community is drinking water. And we’ve seen PFAS contamination, which is really detrimental in parts per trillion. We know that we have PFAS contamination at the airport, and we know if we allow demolition, construction and expansion projects at the airport, that PFAS has a really good possibility of getting into our drinking water, getting into our lakes and further polluting our community.”

Yogesh Chawla
Dane County Supervisor Yogesh Chawla

We’ve seen recently in the news a number of reports of poor performance of the airplanes. We’ve also known from the environmental impact statements that they were disproportionately going to be affecting low-income communities and people of color who live in close proximity to the base,” he says, citing noise and water contamination and loss of property value in nearby homes.

“We’re really seeing no real tangible benefit to our city; siting a military base in an urban environment is not a really good use of resources,” says Chawla. 

The Air Force decision came after “three years of analysis as part of the National Environmental Policy Act-required Environmental Impact Statement process, which included public input on the decision,” wrote 115th Fighter Wing’s Capt. Leslie Westmont, in an article in April 2020 after the site had been chosen. It received support from community leaders who cited its positive economic impact, jobs and the security provided to the region.

The selection of Truax received bipartisan support from legislators, as well as both Wisconsin senators. “I am pleased that the US Air Force recognized the tremendous strategic, geographic and economic capabilities that Truax offers,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) after the announcement. “The 115th Fighter Wing plays an essential role in protecting the safety and security of Wisconsin and our nation.” And Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) called it great news, saying, “I applaud the Air Force for recognizing the strategic importance of our state, and I look forward to Wisconsin playing a major role as the Air Force modernizes and enhances its capabilities to keep America safe and secure.” 

Renewed hope for opposition

“A lot of people thought with the Air Force decision [in February 2020] that this was all over, and we were getting the F-35 jets,” Vicky Berenson, a member of Safe Skies Clean Water, said at the conference. “But there have been a lot of really interesting developments lately. And we haven’t given up. The Department of Defense is re-evaluating the F-35 program, the FAA is re-examining its noise standards and there are actions in the U.S. House to seriously reduce the defense budget.” 

A recent article in Forbes estimates the cost of each F-35 as $100 million per plane, including the engine, and the entire squadron could exceed $1.5 billion. 

The entire $1.7 trillion F-35 program has come into question lately, with reports of technical flaws and delayed testing, and the Pentagon is signaling it is losing confidence in the process of developing this nuclear-capable fighter jet, which was designed to replace the aging F-16s that are currently at based Truax.

On Feb. 26, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan wrote a letter to Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, addressing comments the general made regarding the future of the F-35 force. “While it has been made abundantly clear that Congress does not have authority over the USAF’s basing decisions, I am interested in how your recent comments may impact future placement of F 35A planes in Wisconsin – more specifically, their footprint at Truax Field,” Pocan wrote. 

Rep. Mark Pocan (Screenshot: WisPolitics)
Rep. Mark Pocan (Screenshot: WisPolitics)

The letter continued: “Considering your comments, and the Air Force’s concerns about the longevity and effectiveness of the F-35 planes, will the operational flaws of the F-35A and the upcoming tactical aviation force review impact the current mission at Truax and the upcoming placement of F-35A planes at the base?” 

Pocan signaled he is interested in discussing alternatives to  the F-35s with the military. “I stand ready to work with the USAF and Wisconsin Air National Guard to identify a different use for Truax Air Base that will improve the Air Force’s readiness and mission without significant interruption to surrounding neighborhoods and communities,” he wrote. “I am also happy to discuss alternative missions for Truax, be it medical training, emergency response functions, or similarly situated activities.” 

The Badger Air Community Council, a group that is supportive of locating the F-35 squadron in Madison, did not respond to a request for comment.

Charges of environmental racism

Henry, the attorney filing the suit, said the two chosen locations are home to vulnerable populations that are ill-equipped to cope with the resulting noise and water pollution. “The Air Force selected the location with the largest number of low-income and minority populations,” Henry said, adding that the Air Force’s own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) found that the F-35 project would have “significant disproportionate impacts to low-income and minority populations, as well as children.” 

Steve Klasko, an environmental engineer representing Safe Skies Clean Water, said the Air Force released a draft EIS in 2019 and received 6,000 public comments regarding all five sites; the vast majority of the comments were regarding Truax. “Over 60 community organizations submitted comments and questions and showed their opposition to the jets, including the [Madison] common council and the school board,” Klasko said, adding that the Air Force based its noise analysis on a 50-year-old standard of 65 decibels. In addition, he said, the Air Force averaged out noise levels rather than basing its analysis on the loudest levels that Madison residents would experience. 

Brian Benford, who is running unopposed to represent Dist. 6 on the Madison Common Council, said the community surrounding Truax “already suffers excessive noise from the existing F-16 fighter jets that are training at Truax.” 

He spoke of Madison’s long standing issues with structural racism. “Within Dane County, within Madison, we suffer tragically, insidious racial disparities within our education within criminal justice.And now with an environmental injustice brought on by the potential to bring these insidious weapons of mass destruction of F35s to Madison,” Benford said.


County-level control

Chawla said 14 county supervisors have re-introduced a resolution to be voted on by the Dane County Board opposing the F-35s. He believes county leaders should advocate to clean up the community’s water supply. 

“An eyedropper full of these chemicals could pollute an entire lake; they can pollute an entire source of drinking water for a community,” Chawla said of PFAS pollution. “And we know that there are many of these chemicals right there on the base.” 

“We want to disallow the demolition, construction and expansion projects at the air base until such time as a complete site investigation, cleanup, feasibility study and remediation plans have been developed,” Chawla says. 

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Catherine Capellaro
Catherine Capellaro

Catherine Capellaro is a freelance writer and the arts and culture editor for Isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin. She is also the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a former anchor and reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-89.9 FM and an accomplished playwright and musician.