By Anne Galloway
New data shows that 2,000 more people in Chittenden County would be affected by high noise levels from the F-35 than originally projected — should the Air Force decide to base the fighter jet in Burlington. About 1,000 more households would be impacted.
The Air Force based the population figures in its new draft environmental impact statement on Census data from 2010. The previous statement in March 2012 used federal population surveys from 2000.
“Accurate and timely” Census 2010 data was not available in 2012, according to a statement from the Vermont National Guard.
Noise levels from the F-35 are anticipated to affect a wider swath of Chittenden County, including larger portions of the towns Winooski and Williston, than the F-16s that are now based at Burlington International Airport. The 65 decibel zone detailed in a map provided by the Air Force hasn’t changed officials say, since the last EIS draft was released. Population levels in the zone, however, have become denser.
“The Air Force is committed to producing the most accurate EIS possible, so decision makers have the best information available to make an informed decision,” said Brig. Gen. Richard Harris, assistant adjutant general-air, in a statement. “We are pleased the Air Force took the extra time to incorporate the latest census data along with other changes resulting from the public comment and other government agencies’ review. We remain confident in the transparent process and look forward to the Secretary of the Air Force’s Record of Decision later this year.”
As a result of the revised environmental findings in the 1,000-plus page report, the Air Force gave the Shaw Air Force Base/McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina, a higher environmental score than the two other alternatives — the Vermont Air Guard base in Burlington and the Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida.
McEntire “represents the greatest decrease in the amount of acres, population, households, and receptors exposed to noise levels 65 dB DNL and greater when compared to either its baseline or no-action alternative,” according to the report.
Burlington was cited as the preferred environmental alternative in the statement released last year. The National Guard public affairs office said that was a mistake. In an email to reporters, officials said McEntire should have been cited as the preferred base, from an environmental standpoint, all along, because fewer F-35s will be used to replace F-16s at the South Carolina airbase. Eighteen to 24 fighter jets would be based in Burlington, officials have said.
The environmental impact score is just one facet of the site evaluation process, and by no means puts Vermont out of the running, according to Capt. Dyanna Allen, a Vermont National Guard spokeswoman. Air Force and Guard bases are rated from 0 to 100 on four areas of interest combined: mission, capacity (facilities, skilled workers, etc.), cost and environmental impact. Vermont scored 53 out of 60 points in the most important category — mission, according to Air Force documents. (Vermont’s environmental score in the 2012 EIS was a perfect 10; cost is worth 5 points and capacity 25.) A statement from Air Force spokeswoman Kathy White backed up that argument.
The Guard has the requisite F-16 fighter wing, training sites and airspace, Allen said.
“We have a really good reputation as far as our fighter wing is concerned, and that’s the biggest part of that mission piece, and the biggest piece of the scoring criteria as a whole,” Allen said.
Pilots hope to mitigate noise levels by flying in different patterns, Allen said. “A lot of our pilots here are saying they think they can fly it so that noise impact is minimal,” Allen said. “We’re looking to work with the community. There are lots of things pilots can do to manipulate how they fly and have as little impact on the community as possible.”
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel and anti-F-35 activist who lives in South Burlington, said the first thing she did when she received the EIS was to print and weigh the document. It came in at 13 pounds. “It’s much heavier than the other one,” she said.
Though she had only had time to read through salient passages Friday afternoon, Greco said it appeared not much had changed except the census data that added 2,000 people to the 65 decibel zone. With the new data, 8,000 people in all would be affected by jet takeoff noise, she said.
“They listened to our concerns about the census population data that was 12 years old,” Greco said. “We knew Chittenden County had grown substantially and they have added thousands of people now affected by noise.”
Greco said, however, she doesn’t expect the Air Force’s overall preference for the South Burlington airbase to change. That’s because she says the decision to base the F-35 in the city has nothing to do with national security or military necessity.
“I fully believe they’re coming here because it’s a political decision,” Greco said.
Vermont’s congressional delegation, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have backed the basing of the F-35 in Burlington, despite growing grassroots opposition to the jets in Winooski and South Burlington.
The fact that McEntire gained an edge in the environmental scoring didn’t deter their support.
“We continue to believe basing the plane in South Burlington will be good for the future of the Vermont Air Guard and for the state’s economy,” the delegation wrote in a prepared statement. “We also believe the decision making process must be open and transparent and that the Air Force must take into consideration the community’s concerns. We encourage all interested Vermonters to communicate their views during the comment period and encourage the Air Force to make practical adjustments to the plan that will address the valid concerns of residents and businesses.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin also reiterated his position and emphasized the economic impact of the F-35 through a statement from his press secretary, Susan Allen.
“The Governor’s support of the F-35 basing comes from his confidence in our Vermont Air National Guard, which employs more than 1,000 Vermonters directly and indirectly, strengthens our economy, and safeguards our communities day in and day out,” Allen wrote. “He continues to believe that basing the next generation of aircraft in Vermont will be good for our Guard and for our state, and is confident that the Air Force will ground its final decision upon all of the facts in the detailed record before it.”
The draft proposal is open to public comment for 30 days and a decision on basing the F-35 is expected in the fall.