By Kyle Midura
BURLINGTON, Vt. – The controversial F-35 debate took off last spring. The U.S. Air Force is considering placing 18-24 of its latest fighter jets in Burlington, but opponents argue the noise will drive out some nearby residents and cause health problems for those who stay. At the heart of the matter rests a lengthy, technical document known as an Environmental Impact Statement, a required series of studies for any federal project that could affect plants and animals.
“The impact statement will serve as the foundation for the decision,” said Dale Rocheleau of Downs, Rachlin, Martin.
Rocheleau has followed the EIS developments on behalf of a client. He would not divulge who, but agreed to discuss the process with us in a non-advocacy role.
“The federal agency is actually asking itself the question of whether this is the right thing to do,” Rocheleau said.
The first report, released last May, concluded that Burlington and a base in Utah would be the most suitable areas for the new planes. But opponents contend the initial study relied on flawed numbers in some instances, and lacked critical information in others.
After several delays, the final version is expected Friday. At an afternoon press conference Wednesday, Vermont Air National Guard commanders told members of the press the study will use better population data, but the much maligned sound studies are unlikely to change.
“There’s a lot of testing and a lot of operational things to be done with that aircraft before they come to Burlington,” Maj. Gen. Steven Cray of the Vt. Air National Guard said.
If selected, the plane still won’t touch down for another eight years. But the Air Force says it will decide who gets the plane first by the fall, leaving too little time for new sound checks.
Rocheleau says it’s not uncommon for unknowns to remain in the study despite years of work.
“Environmental impacts generally, it’s not as easy to nail down for impacts on any kind of species, including people,” Rocheleau said.
Issues like finances cannot be considered in an EIS, but will be a factor in the final decision. Rocheleau says that’s when the government must also at least propose fixes for any potential problems.
The public will have 45 days to comment on the environmental impact statement.
Vermont’s congressional delegation and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger support the plane. Winooski Mayor Mike O’Brien has reserved judgment so far.
Those opposed to the F-35 are staging an event at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Burlington Thurs., May 30 at 7 p.m.