SB Hosts Public Hearing - Draft EIS hearing for possible basing of F-35s at BIA

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Thursday May 17, 2012

Outdoors, the evening was cool, but the climate inside the auditorium at South Burlington High School was heated. On Monday evening, May 14, a public hearing took place about the Draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS) issued by the U.S. Air Force to establish an F-35 operational base at Burlington International Airport. The hearing is part of the process to determine which of six locations will be chosen as an operational base for the updated military aircraft. During a 45-day period of public review that began on April 13, public hearings are held in each of the six potential communities that could be affected in order to give citizens a chance to respond to the Draft EIS.

The Air Force follows a standard protocol for informing and hearing responses from the public in each potentially impacted community. For the first hour Monday, people gathered in the lobby of the high school to view six poster displays addressing various aspects of the F-35 base. These included an explanation of the noise impact assessment procedure, the purpose and need of the base and the environmental impact analysis process. Members of the National Guard as well as engineers involved in the analyses were present to answer questions. One Guard member said that the Air Force must answer anything the public asks and that the purpose of the evening was to engage the public and make sure their concerns are heard. The public took full advantage of this opportunity during the hearing that followed.

Vermont Air National Guard Brigadier General Stephen A. Cray opened the official hearing by expressing his pride in the Green Mountain Boys. He introduced Colonel James B. Roan, the evening’s hearing officer. Roen is a senior military judge stationed in Washington, DC who was assigned to the hearing in South Burlington as an impartial facilitator.

Surprisingly, the presentation itself lasted less than ten minutes. Adam Wright, Environmental Manager of the Burlington Air National Guard, summarized the Executive Summary of the Draft EIS. He pointed out that two of the six potential locations are currently preferred by the Air Force, one of which is Burlington. It is possible that the Air Force will decide to bed down its F-35s in one or more of the six locations, and it is also possible that they will take no action. However, said Wright, the drawbacks of taking no action would compromise U.S. defense capability. He directed the audience to Volume 1 of the Draft EIS to access additional details. (The executive summary and Volumes 1 and 2 of the Draft EIS are available at the South Burlington Community Library main desk.)

Roen opened the floor to public comments, beginning with public officials. Without exception, Vermont’s Congressional delegation and its Governor supported locating the F-35 base at Burlington International Airport. Senators Leahy and Sanders, whose statements were read by aides, both expressed appreciation to the National Guard for its role in the community and asked them to be mindful of taking steps to minimize noise and environmental impact. Representative Peter Welsh’s spokesperson echoed these statements, stressing that input from the public was critical in this process. Governor Shumlin’s representative also expressed support, emphasizing that the base would increase economic growth as well as produce investment opportunities.

Statements from Vermont State Auditor Tom Salmon, Vermont State Representatives Brian Savage and Dustin Degree and Lt. Governor Phil Scott also indicated support. Only two public officials expressed opposition or doubts. Winooski Mayor Mike O’Brien expressed frustration that the City of Winooski had not received any direct communications from the Air Force concerning the matter and he asked for further information about the noise impact on Winooski, given that the city is already seriously impacted by civilian and military aircraft noise. He requested the opportunity to meet with the Air Force to discuss relevant considerations. Winooski City Councilor Sarah Robinson voiced concerns about the noise impact and property values, particularly on low income families in Winooski, reiterating O’Brien’s request for more dialogue.

Many people who spoke at the hearing represented businesses and other institutions in the area. By and large, these voices supported the F-35 base at Burlington International Airport, citing economic benefits as the strongest positive factor. These sentiments were heard from spokespeople for IBM, St. Michael’s College, the Burlington Business Association, the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and some small business owners. As the evening went on, it became evident that some people felt that if the F-35 operational base were not located in Burlington, there would be a risk that the Air National Guard Base might close. Some made allusions to the 1995 closure of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base and resulting deterioration of the economic vitality of Plattsburgh. Audience enthusiasm for supporters and their arguments was shown by frequent applause, which Col. Roan tried to suspend in the interest of time, to little avail.

Although opponents were not as plentiful as supporters, they were equally as articulate and outspoken and engendered vigorous applause. Despite their differences, most supporters and opponents acknowledged a debt of gratitude to the Vermont Air National Guard for their positive role in the community, the services they provide and their important roles and quick responses in emergencies such as the 1998 ice storm and last year’s Irene disaster, as well as their vital 2001 role in the country’s 9/11 emergency.

Opponents, however, were critical of the Air Force for considering bedding down military aircraft in a highly populated area such as Chittenden County, impacting not only its population in general with noise and air pollution, but also affecting its schools and hospitals. Lewis Holmes of Burlington stated the obvious when he said, “there is no ideal place to station warplanes.”

David DesLauriers, a resident of the neighborhood abutting the airport and a disabled Vietnam veteran, suggested forming a citizens action committee to oversee the measuring of noise levels based on actual F-35 sounds. Other citizens also expressed deep concerns about the noise impact of the F-35s. Some, such as Janice Schwartz of South Burlington entreated elected officials not to “sacrifice entire neighborhoods of people for an increase in jobs that may not materialize.”

Other speakers against the proposed base expressed concerns about air pollution, aircraft accidents, increased noise, reduced home values and deterioration of property immediately surrounding the airport. Some SB residential areas would be newly subject to noise above 65 db DNL.  A number of antiwar activists spoke against spending billions of dollars on updated weaponry at the expense of health care and educational services. One such person was Garry Davis, the final citizen to speak, giving his perspective as a 90-year-old World War II veteran who had, at the age of 22, dropped bombs from a B-17. He quoted Albert Einstein: “If we don’t eliminate war, war will eliminate us.”

Many supporters of locating the base at Burlington International Airport weighed the noise impact against the economic benefits and concluded that the noise was a small inconvenience worth the sacrifice. On the other hand, people such as Bill Stuono, a member of the South Burlington Development Review Board, referred to the “enormous, alarming effect on thousands” that an F-35 base in Burlington would have. He referred to a statement in the Draft EIS which acknowledged that, because the F-35s were new technology, there were still some unknown ramifications.

Citizen engagement was intense and passionate throughout the hearing. In fact, even though the hearing ran an hour and a half beyond the scheduled time, some people who had signed up to speak did not get a chance to do so. Colonel Roan invited them and anyone else to send their written comments about the draft EIS before June 1 to: HQ ACC/A7PS, 129 Andrews Street, Suite 337, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia 23665 – 2769, Attention: Mr. Nick Germanos.

The South Burlington City Council will discuss the issue at their meeting on Monday, May 21. The final EIS, which will incorporate all the comments made at the hearing, is expected to be published by late fall, followed by a required waiting period of 30 days. The Air Force will make and publish its decision after that.

SOURCE: Lois Price, Correspondent