Growing popular resistance to the Air Force plans for a Burlington F-35 bomber base has included a public health hearing on the plane’s noise impact, a well-attended meeting about legal action against the plan, and the emergence of a new grassroots opposition group, “Save Our Skies from the F35s.” But these developments have yet had no discernible impact on Vermont’s elected officials, almost all of whom support an F-35 base in Vermont.
In defense of the F-35, a coalition of real estate firms recently published a full page ad in two Burlington papers, claiming the F-35 base would hurt property values, despite the Air Force acknowledgement that at least 1,366 homes were in a zone that would become “unsuitable for residential use.” The ad’s nine signers base their conclusion on a hotly disputed paper produced last July by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.
To reach their conclusion that property values are safe and secure, the real estate group includes statistics for unlivable homes that the Burlington Airport has bought at fair market value, as required by law, and then torn down because they are unsellable because of the noise. Statistically, the sales managed to preserve housing value, and commissions, if not the housing itself.
The weekly Seven Days quotes one of the signers, Ernie Pomerleau, as saying: “We’re not the outliers here. We stand with Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Peter Welch, Peter Shumlin and all the other elected officials who support the F-35” – referring to Vermont’s two U.S. Senators, lone Congressman, and Governor.
Congressional Delegation Avoids Public Engagement
The Congressional delegation has been unusually reticent of late, having warmly praised themselves in July 2010 for getting the Air Force to decide to base the F-35 in Vermont. Now Cong. Welch has no references whatsoever to the F-35 on his website and Sen. Leahy has nothing more recent than a year ago. Sen. Sanders, who’s running for re-election in a not-very-contested race, offers several more recent news summaries, including an uncritical report on the real estate ad while noting that opponents called the underlying study “bizarre.”
For all their consistent support of the Air Force plans, none of the congressional delegation has provided any substantial analytical basis in support of their pro-F-35 position or in responding to Vermonters’ concerns not just about property values, but noise, health, militarization, or quality of life in Vermont. None has replied to our requests for such analysis and response.
The Burlington Board of Health, by contrast, has taken a serious approach to concerns about the health impacts of the F-35 and is in the midst of developing an assessment and recommendations to be presented in December.
The first step in that process was the hearing on October 11, when the board heard from seven citizens with a wide range of health concerns that led them to oppose any F-35 base in Vermont. No one spoke in favor of the base. No reporters attended.
Health Concerns Include Stress, Hearing, Heart
Several people addressed both the psychological and the physiological aspects of noise. Psychologically, noise is disturbing and chronic noise wears a person down, which is one reason it’s a basic element of torture. Physiologically, noise causes bodily responses that break the body down over time, creating hearing loss, anxiety, heart disease, or other life-shortening conditions.
As Richard Joseph of Winooski pointed out, some portion of the people living near the airport now are already suffering these effects because of the F-16 fighters that have been based in Burlington for years. He lamented the uninformed public debate and urged the board to speak up.
Echoing an earlier speaker who objected to the health effects of bigger jets burning more fuel and causing more air pollution, Spencer Smith of Burlington added the problem of increased water pollution, since landing F-16s already dump excess fuel into Lake Champlain and the larger F-35 can be expected to dump more.
Smith also noted that the anxiety produced by excess noise would be further amplified by knowing that nuclear weapons were based in Vermont.
Speaking for what she referred to as the “invisible people” in the psych ward of local hospitals, nurse Lee Burch of Burlington emphasized the especially harsh effect loud noise has on mental patients. She pointed out that there are others Air Force bases that want the F-35, and those bases are not in the middle of a metro area of more than 100,000 people, surrounded by residential areas. Only the Burlington option will put thousands of people in an “unsuitable for residential use” zone.
Doctor Raises Higher Violence Rate Among Military
A family physician from Winooski, Dr. Ann Gorey lives and practices in the airport flight path. Re-emphasizing the physiological and psychological impacts, the family practitioner called the board’s attention to the predictable consequence of Burlington becoming more militarized – that there would be increased violence against women and children.
Board chair Dr. Austin Sumner said the board planned to compile the different concerns raised in order to seek some expert testimony at the board’s next meeting November 8. He said the board would continue to accept comments on health issues by email.
The night before the board of health meeting, more than 100 people came to Chamberlin Middle School in South Burlington to express their distress about the current noise from F-16s, never mind what the F-35s would bring. They feel their congressional delegation has written off their neighborhoods as not valuable enough, and that’s why those officials won’t even meet with them.
But mostly they came to discuss the pending legal challenges to the basing plan and explore a variety of ways to move forward either before or after the Air Force announces its decision in December. Attorney James Dumont spent more than an hour answering questions about the community’s legal options for blocking the F-35 from coming to Vermont.
New Group Gets No Hope From Leahy Letter
SaveOurSkiesVT.org is the website of a recently formed opposition group in Winooski, where the city government has been slow to engage on the issue of F-35 basing, even though most of the city will be within the “unsuitable for residential use” zone. Meeting at St. Michael’s College – Sen. Leahy’s alma mater – the group is promoting “A Conversation on the F-35” at the college on October 17.
SaveOurSkies.org has posted a response letter from Sen. Leahy in which he downplays the noise issue (without mentioning health), downplays the property value issue (based on the disputed report), and spends two vague, largely irrelevant paragraphs on national defense (without explaining what difference it would make whether F-35s were based in Vermont or not).
Then he writes, “I am not willing to sacrifice any Vermont community for a new fighter jet. I have worked to obtain federal funds for community investments in both South Burlington and Winooski, and I would never support a new program that would harm those communities. I would strongly oppose basing the F-35 in Vermont if I believed its noise would make Winooski or South Burlington unlivable. But I do not believe that will be the case.”
The congressional delegation from the military-industrial complex apparently eschews evidence for belief – and marching orders.