Vermont’s highest elected officials continue to promote class warfare in their reflexive support for an F-35 base for the stealth nuclear-capable strike fighter in the middle of Vermont’s only urban area even though the world’s most expensive weapons system, $396 billion and counting, has been grounded since mid-January because it’s unsafe to fly.
Directly challenging the state leadership’s willingness to let poor and minority communities bear the greatest cost of putting an F-35 in the middle of greater Burlington, a state representative is introducing a bill in the Vermont legislature that, while it would not protect people against harm, would at least compensate them for whatever damage the government decision does to their property or health.
The Air Force draft environmental impact statement of March 2012 is unambiguous in its finding that the detrimental impact on Vermonters near the base in the categories of noise, land use, and environmental justice are far worse for the Burlington base than for people living near any of the five alternative choices, some of which would suffer no such negative impacts at all, in the Air Force assessment.
As the Air Force puts it, when it comes to noise, land use, and environmental justice, if the F-35 were to be based at the Burlington airport, “Analysis has identified unavoidable adverse environmental impact” from excessive noise, land degradation, and harm to the most vulnerable base neighbors.
When Government Hurts People, Then What?
Given the unavoidable negative impact promised by the Air Force, a state legislator elected in 2012, Rep. George Cross, a Democrat of Winooski, has drafted a bill that addresses “environmental injustice,” which is the Air Force euphemism for the disproportionate harm inflicted on poor and minority citizens, the effect some characterize as class warfare.
Winooski is one of two communities that would suffer the most impact from the F-35 basing, and its city council has taken no position on the F-35, but has asked the Air Force for more information before the Pentagon makes a decision. That request has not yet been fulfilled.
South Burlington is the other community that would bear the brunt of an F-35 basing impact. The South Burlington city council has voted twice to reject the F-35, the second time unanimously. The city council chair, Rosanne Greco, is a retired Air Force colonel who worked for years as a Pentagon planner. She has taken an active role not only in speaking out against the F-35 as harmful to South Burlington, but also pointing out errors in the Air Force impact statement that made the impact of the F-35 seem less severe than the data demonstrated.
If The F-35 Doesn’t Harm Anyone, There’s No Cost
Rep. Cross’s bill is as direct as it is uncomplicated in addressing any possible future distress that Winooski or South Burlington residents may suffer as a result of the F-35’s impact. First, the bill would establish a seven member F35A Adverse Impacts Compensation Board,
“… for the purpose of awarding compensation to property owners, landowners, and other persons harmed or damaged by the noise and other adverse impacts generated by the basing of the F-35A or any other military aircraft by the Vermont Air National Guard at the Burlington International Airport.”
The seven members would include representatives from each of the four closest towns, as well as an airport representative, a medical professional, and a financial professional. This board would have the authority to compensate people for damage inflicted by the F-35, including loss of property value, costs of relocating to a safer place, or costs of treatment for physical or psychological harm “caused or aggravated” by the F-35 “or any other Vermont Air National Guard military aircraft” based at the airport.
Rep. Cross’s bill would also establish the “F-35A Adverse Impacts Compensation Fund” for the compensation board to administer in carrying out it’s purpose. The bill proposes to support the compensation fund with 20 per cent of the state appropriation to the national guard and a 5 per cent surcharge on the cost of each ticket to or from Burlington airport. The bill also allows for private gifts and other state funding.
Although supporters of the F-35 basing in Vermont have been saying for months that the F-35 would do no harm to person or property, they promptly objected to the compensation bill. Speaker of the House ShapSmith, an attorney and a Democrat, was immediately non-committal about what committee might look at the bill. The speaker’s website contains no reference to “F-35,” “joint strike fighter,” or “Burlington airport.” Smith did not reply to inquiry on the subject.
Reaction Among Politicians Has Been Timid
From the Congressional level on down there has been bi-partisan reticence about the F-35, though it’s mostly Democrats who make vague statements of support without demonstrating any mastery of the details of the problem. More often than not, elected officials of the two major parties say little more than that they support the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) and that they hope any difficulties can be worked out.
Rep. Kurt Wright, Republican of Burlington told WCAX-TV: “I think it’s important to our guard and our economy that they [F-35s] are based here.” This is a commonly repeated opinion that has little evidence to support it. Even the Air Force says that basing 18 F-35s in Burlington “would not impact regional employment, income, or regional housing market,” although that changes with 24 F-35s based in Vermont.
What the view expressed by Rep. Wright and many others apparently references is their fear that, without the F-35, VTANG will have no mission and dissolve. No Air Force or Pentagon official has said such a thing, but National Guard generals and commercial supporters of the F-35 base have been using this fear as a tactic at least since 2010, even though there’s no evidence to support it.
Rep. Clement Bissonnette, Democrat of Winooski, like Rep. Cross, captured the VTANG loyalty when he toldFOXnews44, “I was proud on 9-11 when our jets took off and protected the east coast.” When asked about jet noise possibly causing hearing loss or other medical problems, Rep. Bissonnette replied, without offering support, “There are people who say that, there’s also studies out there that say just the opposite.” The reporter added that
“Representative Cross plans to present a bill asking the state to compensate people who would be impacted by the noise. Representative Bissonnette says there’s no money available.”
While this response ignores the bill’s content, that includes proposed funding means, it does encapsulate the apparently widespread indifference of Vermont’s political leaders to any hardship imposed on their constituents by a warplane that is already 100% over budget, a decade overdue, cannot yet fly safely, and is expected to cost more then $1 trillion over its service lifetime if it ever is deployed.
Vermont Progressives Opposed the F-35 Early
In May 2010, the Vermont Progressive Party adopted a resolution titled “Stop the F-35” that said in part:
“We oppose the installation of F-35 fighter jets at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington. The health, safety, and quality of life of all Vermonters will be harmed by these fighter jets. Our environment will be degraded. Removal of more rows of affordable houses near the airport will likely be required….
“In town meetings Vermonters voted overwhelmingly that the best way to support our soldiers is to bring each and every one of them home now. These planes are counter to those votes, and they will not benefit Vermont. We say to the Federal Government: cancel the F-35, and send the money to Vermont instead.”
In contrast, Vermont Democrats have yet to express doubt about the worth of the F-35. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, recently went to Florida to listen to the F-35 with earmuffs on and concluded it wasn’t too loud. During the 2012 election campaign, a questioner asked him about compensating those harmed by the basing if it happens. Shumlin flipped off the voter, saying casually that he “didn’t have the coin.”
Some 200 houses are already vacant and condemned in South Burlington because they were within the area where jet noise is so loud that the Air Force labels it “unsuitable for residential use.” With the arrival of the F-35s, the Air Force estimates that another 1,300 houses or more will be rendered “unsuitable for residential use.”
Why Rush to Judgment Amidst Uncertainty?
Rep. Cross has also introduced a non-binding resolution asking the Air Force to take Vermont out of consideration for F-35 basing during this initial round of basing decisions. Vermont is one of six bases currently under consideration, with others located in Idaho, Utah, Florida, and two in South Carolina. According to Vermont Public Radio, Cross’s resolution has “more than 30 co-sponsors” in the 150-member Vermont House. He has five as of February 8.
The House voted on a similar non-binding resolution in 2010, expressing support for having the F-35 in Vermont. As Cross points out, this vote was taken before anyone had seen the 2012 environmental impact report that shows how much more impact the plane will have on Vermont compared to the other bases under consideration.
“Of all the other bases being considered for the F-35, only our community will suffer such terrible consequences,” South Burlington city council chair Greco told a news conference at the state capitol on February 7, appearing with Rep. Cross in support of his resolution.
A day earlier, Rep. Jim McCullough, Democrat of Williston, introduced a non-binding resolution of his own in support of basing the F-35 in Vermont.
Whether the Speaker of the House will let any of this legislation come to a vote is anybody’s guess, but the longer the delay, the more people will see reporting from sources such as the Defense Industry Dailysuggesting that the F-35 “Can’t Turn, Can’t Climb, Can’t Run” or Business Insider explaining “How The F-35 Turned Into Such A Disaster” as bad news about the F-35 continues to accumulate.
The Air Force initially planned to announce its basing decision in late 2012, then early 2013, and now the decision is expected some time in the spring. Meanwhile the Air Force continues to keep secret the data on which its draft environmental impact assessments were base. The Air Force has denied Freedom of Information requests and internal appeals, which are now in federal court.
Meanwhile, at least for the time being, none of it matters, because the world’s most expensive weapons system still can’t fly.