F-35 Decision on Horizon

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Thursday October 24, 2013

The fall of 2013 will be an unforgettable one for Vermonters who are actively engaged in the F-35 conversation. Expressions of pride, discontent, skepticism, and anticipation continue to surface as the decision of the possible beddown of 18-24 F-35 fighter jets in the Vermont Air National Guard base draws nearer. 

The United States Air Force released the Final Environmental Impact Statement in late September. The Vermont Air National Guard was named as the preferred location to base the F-35s.  Even with the partial government shutdown in effect, the Notice of Availability was posted on the Federal Register on Oct. 4, as scheduled--thus clocking the beginning of a 30-day waiting period before a Record of Decision can be signed by the Secretary of the Air Force.

Response to the EIS remains active. The Final EIS posts information under Appendix E which consists of the Air Force responses to public comments received during the official comment period. The comments are broken down into matrices for organizational purposes. There were a total of 11,172 responses—all but 14 of which related to Burlington. The Air Force received a total of 809 individually-written comments, 10,349 postcards (over 9,600 were not counted based on statements in contradiction to Air Force information), and a petition with 2,460 signatures in support of the F-35 basing, which the Air Force counted as one comment. Responses can be viewed on the Air Combat Command Planning page, www.accplanning.org. 

Controversy continues to tangle topics such as noise, economic impact, adverse health effects, property devaluation and safety, and South Burlington residents have been actively advocating on both sides of the issue.  Additional debate centers around the fact that while the Burlington International Airport is located physically within the City of South Burlington, it is owned and operated by the City of Burlington.  

The Burlington City Council scheduled an F-35 discussion for their Oct. 7 meeting. After Burlington’s City Attorney Eileen Blackwood announced that Burlington lacked sufficient liability insurance, the Burlington Council had to delay the item and public hearing process because councilors were not insured in case of a lawsuit. Since that time, the City of Burlington has purchased liability insurance up to $5 million in the event of a lawsuit. Blackwood provided a legal memorandum, released Thursday, Oct. 17, stating that the Burlington City Council decision still would not have control over the military’s activities, including the basing of the F-35 if chosen. Furthermore, Blackwood stated that Council opposition could result in loss of federal funding.  

“In sum, if the City were to deny the F-35’s access to the airport, it is likely the FAA would find that action to be a violation of the City’s grant assurances and that it would deny the City further federal funds, including the $2.6 million pending for taxiway improvement,” Blackwood wrote. “It is also likely that VTANG and the Air Force would deny the City use of their fire-fighting and crash rescue services, requiring the airport to hire and maintain such services at its own cost.”  

Additionally, Blackwood wrote that “it seems unlikely that the City could be held liable for VTANG’s or the Air Force’s operation of the F-35.” 

Blackwood’s memorandum serves as a “preliminary analysis” to provide legal counsel for Burlington councilors; it is not final statement on behalf of the Council.      

The Burlington City Council is scheduled to vote on the F-35 resolution at a special meeting set for  Monday, Oct. 28. 

In preparation for the early October meeting, South Burlington City Councilor Rosanne Greco sent an e-mail to Burlington Councilors outlining passages extracted from the EIS. She pointed out that under Scenarios 1 and 2 it is stated that the economy and job rate would not effectively improve with the F-35 basing(Final EIS pages BR4-78 and BR4-79), that the Air Guard would not close if not given the F-35s (Revised Draft EIS Page PA-47), and that 80 percent of comments were in opposition (Final EIS Appendix E). 

Safety concerns have been a main topic of discussion, but one of Greco’s main issues is one not specifically addressed in the EIS.  Greco’s concerns center around possible exposure to toxic gases and carbon fibers from composite materials and stealth coating chemicals in the event of a crash in a densely populated residential area.In summation, Greco provided a request:“Because the sides for and against are numerous and vocal, a vote to support the basing, or vote to prevent the basing, will undoubtedly upset many people,” Greco wrote. “That is why I urged leaders to consider a compromise. In the compromise, they do not have to say ‘no’ to the basing. They only have to say ‘not now.” 

In response to safety concerns, Air Force representatives have held numerous news conferences. Col. Dave Baczewski, commander of the Air Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing, has stepped up to defend the Vermont Air National Guard’s safety records, citing reports and statistics. 

Lt. Col. Chris Caputo, F-35 Program Integration Officer said, “Selective data used by opponents is not an accurate representation of the Air Force or VTANG.”    

Lt. Col. Caputo told The Other Paper, “The Vermont Air National Guard has a fire crash rescue team that responds to both civilian and military-related incidents with professional materials.”

“We do not fly unsafe aircraft. That’s not how we do business. The Vermont Air National Guard has an impeccable record...[they are] extremely disciplined and professional,”  Caputo said. 

The arrival date of the F-35s in Burlington,  if the decision is to base here, is still actively debated. 

Greco has referenced two places in the EIS where she identifies text which says the F-35 could arrive in 2015. Caputo responded that the timeframe in the EIS is a general timeframe, and that--with certainty--the F-35 aircraft would not arrive in Burlington until 2020 if selected, as it will be assigned to an active duty base first. 

 “A total of 81 F-35 jets are currently being flown at six bases,” Caputo said. “As reported by the Air Force, the preferred location for an active duty basing is Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The preferred location for the National Guard base is Burlington. If Burlington is selected for this round of F-35 aircraft, the earliest the Air Force projects VTANG receiving the jets  is 2020. “

The Secretary of the Air Force could reach a decision as soon as Nov. 4.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent