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Air Force stonewalls F-35 defects

Vermont “leaders” turn deaf ear to F-35 base noise and health issues

None of the more notable supporters of basing the nuclear-capable F-35 stealth fighter-bomber at Burlington Airport in Vermont, not one, had the courage to tell the Burlington Board of Health that the F-35 would be good for the community’s health.  The available evidence points strongly to the F-35 being bad for people’s health.

The Board of Health hearing on November 27 heard three health experts, two of whom criticized the plane’s health impact, while the third called it “a very murky area.”  Of the dozen members of the audience of about 50 who spoke, all objected to the plane’s deleterious effects.

The F-35 has faced local opposition for almost three years, opposition that has grown since the U.S. Air Force released a draft environmental impact statement in the spring of 2012, provoking widespread objections to its assumptions, methodology, and conclusions.  To date, the Air Force continues to withhold documents relevant to the criticisms.

The final impact statement is now scheduled for release in mid-January 2013, with the final basing decision expected a month or so later.   If the F-35 is based in Burlington, it’s not expected to arrive before 2020, about 20 years since the world’s most expensive weapons program – approaching $400 billion – began.  So far it is about a decade behind schedule and 100% over budget.

The F-35 program has been troubled for years, to the point where some in Washington are looking to cut their losses.  According to the New York Times of November 28, budget cutters are eyeing this expensive program that is still in the testing phase and still years from full deployment.  Two days later the Times reported that the Pentagon had agreed in principle to pay $3.8 billion for 32 F-35s “after a year of tense negotiations over how to lower costs.”

Sales of the F-35 continue to face uncertainty as budget-strapped countries have second thoughts, most recently Canada, where officials withheld cost data until after the most recent election.

Public Officials Duck Public Meetings

No one from the Air Force came to the board of health hearing, nor did anyone from the Pentagon or the plane’s maker, Lockheed Martin.  None of the Vermont congressional delegation appeared or sent representatives – not Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy who says he wants the F-35 in Burlington, not independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, who say the same thing.  Outspoken supporter Governor Peter Shumlin was absent and so was more tepid supporter Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, both Democrats.

Chris Hurd, a local real estate agent who attended the hearing, published his observations afterward:

“And what of our elected officials? Not a single public hearing to allow those most affected by the basing to shine a spotlight upon grievances and health concerns has been held by Senators Leahy, Sanders, Rep. Welch, or our Governor. 

“No official calls for transparency, no inquiries into the stunning lack of data and no one from the delegation willing to even QUESTION this basing. Shame upon all of you.”

Lacking any high-ranking profiles in courage, someone in authority apparently decided that a Vermont National Guard (VTANG) Lt. Colonel would be a sufficient stand-in for the AWOL leaders.  That’s how the board ended up hearing often unreliable information from Col. Luke “Torch” Ahmann, whose most relevant experience had been piloting F-16s for the past dozen years.

Costumed in his flight suit for his ground appearance before a civilian audience, Col. Ahmann tried reassuring the group that the F-35 noise level “is probably going to be quite similar” to the already objectionable noise of the F-16 – even though the Air Force impact statement says the F-35 is twice as loud as the F-16.  Some object to this assessment, but the Air Force refuses to release documentation that might resolve it.

Air Force Case Flawed, Data Withheld

Working from a Power Point presentation, the colonel also argued that aircraft noise has been “proven as compatible with residential use,” even though the Air Force impact statement estimates more than 1,000 homes will be rendered “incompatible with residential use” by the proposed F-35 base.  Additionally, about 100 homes have already been destroyed as part of a Federal Aviation Administration program designed to clear inhabitants from excessive noise zones.

The board of health chair, Dr. Austin Sumner, is a practicing physician and the Vermont state epidemiologist.  At the hearing he expressed concern that his board’s limited and advisory authority applies only to Burlington and not the two communities next to the airport:

“There are three separate communities that will be…potentially adversely affected by this plane. That’s Winooski, Burlington and South Burlington….

There is only one department or agency that really has multi-jurisdictional authority and that is the Vermont Department of Health and I have not to date heard their position on this matter. They should be the lead organization investigating the public health effects related to what could affect 7000-9000 members of those three communities.”

The state health commissioner, Dr. Harry Chen, has been unresponsive to public requests to assess the potential health impact of the F-35.  An open letter to Dr. Chen in September, written at the behest of Dr. Sumner, has gone unanswered.

Dr. Chen has also ignored media inquiries wondering why the Vermont Health Dept. is ignoring a Vermont health issue at the moment when prevention would do the most good.

No representative of the Vermont Department of Health attended the F-35 hearing, so it remains unclear why a request on behalf of the state epidemiologist continues to be ignored by the state health commissioner, even though the state’s website recognizes at least some of the damaging health effects of noise.

Air Force Tries to Get By With Decades-Old Study 

In his testimony to the board, Les Blomberg, who is the executive director of the state’s Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier [website last updated January 2000], told the board that the Ai Force had failed to respond to his requests for clarifying information.  Such bureaucratic silence, Blomberg suggested, “only happens when they have something to hide.”

In a follow-up letter to the health board November 30, Blomberg identified other inaccuracies in Col. Ahmann’s presentation of the Air Force position, in particular the government’s false claim that “there is no scientific basis for a claim that potential health effects exist for aircraft time average sound levels below 75 dB [decibels].”  Pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of the claim, Blomberg wrote:

“You should note that the conclusion is based on 20+ year old paper based on research that was probably more than 25 years old. In the last 25 years, while the human body’s response to noise has not changed, our understanding of it has changed greatly.

“In the last 10 years, research has shown health effects from noise, including the WHO statement that was on my handout.”

In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe published a 126-page study titles “Burden of disease from environmental noise,” which was certainly as available to the Air Force for its environmental impact statement as research that was decades out of date.   The Foreword of the study offers a clear context in which the F-35 should be assessed for its health impact:

“Public health experts agree that environmental risks constitute 24% of the burden of disease. Widespread exposure to environmental noise from road, rail, airports and industrial sites contributes to this burden. One in three individuals is annoyed during the daytime and one in five has disturbed sleep at night because of traffic noise. 

“Epidemiological evidence indicates that those chronically exposed to high levels of environmental noise have an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as myocardial infarction. Thus, noise pollution is considered not only an environmental nuisance but also a threat to public health.”  

Most Ignore Class War Aspect, But It’s Real

Blomberg also addressed the class warfare aspect of the Air Force/Pentagon/Congressional push for the Vermont F-35 base, as reported by Kevin Kelley for Seven Days:

“Low-income and nonwhite Vermonters account for many of those who will be most affected by the noise of the F-35, he observed. “Most people living near airports are those who can’t afford to leave,” Bloomberg said.”

Also testifying before the health board, Dr, John Reuwer, a South Burlington primary care physician reinforced the availability to the Air Force of plenty of recent research demonstrating the harmful effects of aircraft noise.  To bring the point home, he added, “there’s almost no evidence that the effect of these planes is harmless. [emphasis added]”

No one has offered evidence that the F-35 is beneficial to a person’s health.

The third expert to testify, Dr. Mark Gorman, a neurologist and associate professor at the University of Vermont, limited his comments to the possible connection of aircraft noise to strokes, calling it “a very murky area” while acknowledging the connection was credible.

Main Vermont Media Fail to Inform

For an issue with as much local and national significance, mainstream media coverage was even thinner than usual.  Kevin Kelley of Seven Days provided the most detailed (and only) print report, Sarah Harris of North Country Public Radio was alone with more than bulletin radio coverage, and television provided an unsigned, careless story on NBC-TV affiliate WPTZ.  The rest of Vermont’s media were silent, including the Burlington Free Press, Vermont Public Radio, and both the CBS and FOX TV affiliates.

This kind of coverage of a Tuesday meeting was not for lack of news value, or for competing stories of greater significance.  As Chris Hurd wrote in his post-hearing write-up of the public health board: 

“The most revealing question during last Tuesday night’s F-35 Burlington Board of Health Hearing was posed by the Board Chairman to the two representatives of the Vermont Air National Guard. The Chair asked if information about the effects of noise could be provided to the BOH. The VTANG reply was a deafening ‘no’. 

“The Chair pressed asking ‘why not?’   VTANG countered ‘that information rests in the hands of the United States Air Force.’   

“The Chair continued asking when could the Board of Health receive this information and VTANG’s reply was louder than the F-35’s themselves: VTANG answered the pertinent information might not be made available until AFTER the USAF Environmental Impact Study for the F-35 Basing is finalized on January 15th, 2013. 

“In other words, nearly THREE years into this debate, we had representatives from VTANG unable to give direct answers to the [health board] questions on basic information necessary for them to make their determination of the health effects of this plane until AFTER the basing decision has been set.” 

Based on the evidence to date, the F-35 stealth fighter has a lot of stealth supporters, stealthy apparently for lack of a credible argument based on reliable information.

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