Proposed Vermont F-35 base pits militarization against public health

Noise is one of the basic tools torturers use to break down their prisoners at Guantanamo or Bagram. The proposed Vermont F-35 base for fighter-bombers promises to bring significant noise to Burlington, Vermont and now the Burlington Board of Health has decided to hold hearings on the connection between noise and disease.

Public health was not included in the Air Force assessment of a Burlington base, nor have opponents raised the issue forcefully. But the Board of Health, which is responsible for the “prevention, removal or destruction of public health hazards and the mitigation of public health risks” under state and local law, started looking at the health implication of the F-35 last summer and found enough concern to warrant public hearings in October and November.

The underlying question is whether increased militarization of Vermont will be good for the health of Vermonters.

The board has not taken a position on the F-35 at this time, and any opinion it offers is only advisory, but would carry some weight. Â The board is a five member citizen advisory group appointed by the Burlington City Council, which is divided on the F-35 issue and has formally voted to take no position yet.

Noise, especially traffic noise, and especially air traffic noise has long been recognized as an environmental and health concern. The U.S. Air Force acknowledges the seriousness of noise impact on health by estimating that the noise of an F-35 base in Burlington would render at least 1,366  more houses “incompatible with residential use,” in addition to the hundreds of residences already rendered “incompatible” by the F-16 fighter program and other air traffic at Burlington International Airport.

Opposition to an F-35 base in Vermont started shortly after the Air Force announced its plane in December 2009. Â Oppositionincreased dramatically in June of this year during the comment period on the Air Force’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that gave Burlington high marks in a scoring system that later turned out to be wrong.

The Air Force is considering five other sites for F-35 bases, but Burlington is the only place where the noise pollution impact was rated high by the Air Force. The EOS offers no noise mitigation proposals. Â The Federal Aviation Administration says that there are no noise mitigation techniques that actually work.

The only local Vermont government to support the F-35 base is Milton, population 10,352, about ten miles from the airport. Milton Select Board chair Louis Mossey, a master sergeant in the Air National Guard that would host the F-35, engineered the 5-0 vote to reaffirm a 2010 resolution of support, saying he had no conflict of interest requiring him to abstain.

None of the towns most directly affected have expressed support for the F-35, despite voting on the issue. Â Most asked for more information from the Air Force. Â Â Only South Burlington has voted in clear opposition. Â The chair of the South Burlington is a well-informed retired Air Force colonel, Rosanne Greco, who work for years as the Pentagon planner.

No one seems to argue that the newest, most expensive, nuclear-capable U.S. Air Force fighter-bomber, that is a decade late on delivery and more than 100 per cent over budget, is really needed to defend Vermont. Â It’s hard to find anyone who says the plane is needed at all, and foreign buyers have begun reducing or cancelling their orders.

But most Vermont state and federal officials are in favor of basing it in Vermont anyway. Vermont’s entire congressional delegation supports the F-35 base, as does the governor and his Republican challenger, as does the Mayor of Burlington, even though none of them has offered any detailed analysis of the benefits that they think outweigh the widely-acknowledged human and economic costs. Â Mostly these elected officials say something vague about “jobs” or supporting the Vermont Air National Guard, and then try to change the subject.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s running for re-election, doesn’t have the F-35 issue on his campaign website. Â Â Â Sanders has said, somewhat irrelevantly, “ I think by and large that decision has already been reached.”  Sanders is under no pressure from his campaign opponent, Republican John MacGovern, who has expressed some concern over the F-35, but is not making it an issue.

“I think it would be a very good thing for Vermont to have the F-35 here,” is about as detailed as Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy gets on the issue. Democratic Cong. Peter Welch gets slightly more expansive, and leaves himself plenty of running room, when he says: “I do support the F-35s for the Guard. There’s two issues about that — one is this is very good for the jobs and the economy. Number two — it’s an indication of how highly regarded the Vermont guard is. But there is a third issue that is very important and that’s the environmental assessment process, and that should be an independent process free from political interference and I will accept whatever the outcome of that process is.”

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