F-35–Catastrophe Waiting to Happen
by James Marc Leas
No one knows better than the Air Force itself the danger of basing F-35 jets in a densely populated area. The U.S. Air Force Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) says the F-35 is more than four times louder than the outrageously loud F-16 currently based at the Burlington airport. The EIS also says the F-35 noise will drive 2,963 homes into an area the Air Force EIS says is “generally considered unsuitable for residential use.”
The danger is not just that the World Health Organization (WHO) found that half the children living with aircraft noise at the level the F-35 will produce in those 2963 homes will suffer delayed reading and degraded concentration, memory and attention.
Another kind of danger is wrapped on top of the extreme noise. The Air Force EIS says it expects the crash rate at the Burlington airport to sharply increase when the F-35 replaces the F-16 in 2019.
But the crash danger goes further than just a high expected crash rate. Other Air Force reports indicate far worse consequences when the F-35 crashes near people. Whereas the F-16 body is made of aluminum, 42% of the F-35’s 29,000 pound weight is combustible military carbon composite materials with a combustible stealth coating. A Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division report says that “extremely toxic, mutagenic, carcinogenic” chemicals, particles, and fibers are released when such materials burn. Such as during the time before the fire department arrives on the scene to put out the conflagration initiated when 2000 gallons of jet fuel carried by the F-35 bursts into flame on impact. The toxic plume from the burning of 12,000 pounds of military composite materials is not good for humans or animals in thousands of households adjacent the runway or living in the seven towns within six miles of the airport.
The Air Force does not mince words: Another report, this one issued by the Air Force Institute for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, states that, unlike the F-16, the F-35 should be included in “the high-risk category due to the high percentage or high quantity of composite materials.” In view of the catastrophic consequences of an F-35 crash, yet another Air Force report suggests “minimizing accidental and other extraordinary losses by anticipating and preventing unplanned events.” Basing the F-35 in the most densely populated part of Vermont stands in conflict with a Policy Directive issued by the Secretary of the Air Force that requires “accept no unnecessary risk” and requires that policies“ensure safety and health of Air Force personnel and the public.”
It is not just the Air Force worrying about public health and safety. Burlington’s own Board of Health spent several months hearing testimony and reviewing research data regarding health issues caused by fighter jet noise. The Board then adopted a resolution: “the Burlington Board of Health has concluded that noise has been associated with the following health effects: hearing loss, stress, sleep disturbance, heart attacks, hypertension and stroke, and delayed reading and verbal comprehension.”
To mitigate the danger just from F-16 noise, Burlington so far accepted $57 million in FAA noise mitigation grants to purchase and demolish affordable South Burlington homes in the F-16 “unsuitable for residential use” noise danger zone. A 44-acre strip of land now stands empty of the 200 affordable homes that once stood across from the airport entrance.
Affordable homes are in short supply in Chittenden County. The loss of more affordable housing, either because of an unsafe noise level or because of additional acquisition and demolition, restricts business development and job growth in the county.
Under federal law, municipalities have full authority over municipal-owned airports, and Burlington City decisions are not preempted by the federal government or by the Air Force.
Regarding potential Burlington liability for damages, in a concurring opinion regarding F-35 basing, specially assigned retired Vermont Supreme Court Judge James Morse wrote, “A fair number of courts … have also concluded . . . that federal law does not preempt common-law actions against municipally-owned airports based on excessive noise.” That means Burlington faces suits in defense of children and adults whose health, learning, or property is injured by noise or crash.
To protect health and safety–and Burlington taxpayers–Burlington, as airport owner, has authority to establish criteria for its airport tenant, such as to operate equipment no louder than commercial jets and with a high safety record. And the Air Force has multiple choices of such equipment to offer the Vermont Air National Guard.
The airport has a governance problem of constitutional proportions. Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution requires that government officials be accountable to the people. However, Burlington government officials, who have total control over airport decision-making, are not elected by or accountable to the people whose school, housing, and lives they rule in the F-35 noise and crash danger zones in South Burlington, Winooski, Williston, Colchester, Essex, or Essex Junction.
The F-35 is a stealth weapon of mass destruction designed for a first strike attack on other countries. It facilitates war for oil while itself consuming vast quantities of oil for war. It cannot protect Vermont from climate-change mega-storms, cyber attack, nuclear missile attack, terrorism, food insecurity, or income inequality. It drains $1.4 trillion from health care, education, affordable housing, and rebuilding infrastructure. The F-35 does not take on the billionaire class. Or the fossil fuel industry. It does not drive money out of politics. It does not abolish pervasive racism. The F-35 feeds the military-industrial complex. Basing a first strike weapon at the airport makes the airport a legitimate military target. It also makes thousands of households near the airport into human shields in violation of the Geneva Convention. While the mission of the Vermont Air National Guard is “to protect the citizens of Vermont,” basing the F-35 at the airport puts thousands of Vermont citizens in harm’s way.
With all these detractors, why is the F-35 coming to Burlington in two years? Is it because of intense pressure on the Air Force applied by the most senior Senator of all, Patrick Leahy? Is it because the now vacant land near the airport entrance has certain real estate developers salivating for the time when they can put up commercial properties? Is money for the developer class driving such a devastating plan for the Burlington area?
The voice of the 99% is desperately needed before the F-35 arrives. This is why the Coalition for a Livable City launched a petition drive to put the F-35 up for a vote at Town Meeting in Burlington on March 6.
The Air Force highlighted the dangers. Now it’s up to the voters.
James Marc Leas is a patent lawyer and a member of the Coalition for a Livable City
Editor’s Note: The following is the wording of the Resolution/Petition: We, the undersigned voters of the City of Burlington hereby petition our City Council to warn the advisory resolution below for Town Meeting, March 6, 2018. “Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National guard, and especially their mission to ‘protect the citizens of Vermont,’ advise the City Council to: 1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and 2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?”