It’s Definitely Not Over: The Burlington City Council can still bar the basing, the EIS has major omissions that can challenged, several other legal challenges are in play, and a political decision made at Leahy’s demand can be changed just as quickly.
The Vermont Air National Guard has all but won its bid to obtain a squadron of new F-35 fighter jets, the Burlington Free Press has learned.
“I can confirm on record that Burlington AGS remains the preferred alternative for the first ANG operational bed-down location,” Nicholas M. Germanos, the project manager for studies on F-35 basing, wrote in an email to the newspaper Wednesday.
In military jargon, the acronym AGS means Air Guard Station, and ANG is Air National Guard.
A final Environmental Impact Statement, scheduled to be released Oct. 4, is expected to contain language affirming Burlington as the Air Force’s preferred site for an Air Guard squadron of F-35s.
The Vermont Air Guard facility beat out Guard sites in South Carolina and Florida for the F-35 designation.
Barring an 11th hour reversal by Air Force decision-makers, Germanos’ statement means the Vermont Air National Guard base at Burlington International Airport would begin flying 18-24 of the next-generation planes by 2020, possibly sooner.
A final decision by the Secretary of the Air Force is due later this fall.
Vermont Guard Adjutant General Steven Cray said late Wednesday afternoon he will wait for the process to be complete.
“I’m not going to celebrate until I see it in writing or get a phone call from the Air Force that a final decision has been made,” Cray said. “I still feel this would be the right decision for the United States, Vermont and the Air Guard.”
The campaign to win the F-35 designation from the Air Force has been a hard-fought battle, attracting support from top state politicians and heated opposition from an array of local activists and some elected officials.
Vermont National Guard officials have argued that the Air Guard’s F-16s are near the end of their useful lives and, unless they are replaced by F-35s, the Air Guard’s future role as part of the nation’s air defense system would be at risk.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, the state’s congressional delegation and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger all have said repeatedly they support bringing the F-35s to Vermont.
Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate’s most senior member, confirmed he spoke by phone to Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh about the status of the basing decision.
Leahy made the call after hearing the Air Force was considering a plan to designate an active military base to get the F-35, but delay a decision on the Guard base.
“This isn’t the first time the Air Force or one of its major commands has tried to put the active force ahead of the Air National Guard,” the senator’s spokesman, David Carle, said at the time.
Nicole Citro, who led a local campaign that supported basing the F-35s in Vermont, said she was excited about Wednesday’s news.
“It’s been a long, hard process, but the Air Guard definitely should be congratulated for being at this level of consideration,” she said.
Rosanne Greco, a South Burlington city councilor and an F-35 opponent, said she’s convinced Leahy used his muscle as the Senate’s most senior member to make sure the Vermont Air Guard will receive the planes.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Greco, a retired Air Force colonel, said of Wednesday’s disclosure. “It’s because of Sen. Leahy that Burlington was selected as the preferred site. The Air Force wanted to delay a decision on Guard basing.”
Opponents of the F-35, citing data in a draft Air Force environmental impact statement, have complained the planes’ noise will render more homes near the airport unsuitable for residential use and cause cognitive impairments for children.
Last week, the opponents also raised concerns about the large amount of plastic composites that make up the plane and the environmental, health and safety risks to the community if one of the planes crashes and burns.
Greco said the Air Force has not considered the environmental consequences of such a crash and might be persuaded to hold off a decision until it reviews the issue.
Greco also said she is hopeful the Burlington City Council will vote to prohibit landings and takeoffs of F-35s at the airport, which the city owns. A vote on a resolution about that matter is scheduled for early next month.
The final report analyzing the environmental impact of basing the planes at the Vermont Air Guard’s facility at Burlington International Airport is due to be released Oct. 4, the Guard announced late Tuesday.
Greco told the Burlington Free Press last week that the report would be released Oct. 4. The Pentagon, asked by the newspaper about Greco’s contention, denied that it planned to release the report on that date.
A draft version of the report, issued last year, ranked the Burlington site behind Guard facilities in South Carolina and Florida on environmental factors. Still, the same report designated Burlington as the preferred operational site. The study contained several misstatements favorable to Burlington that later had to be corrected.
Early Wednesday evening, the state’s congressional delegation released a copy of a summary of the final environmental impact statement provided to them by the Air Force.
“There were no substantive changes made from what was already published in the revised draft EIS,” the summary said in part.
The summary also charted the volume of public letters and postcards the Air Force received regarding the Burlington site.
According to the summary, 644 letters opposing the basing and 165 supporting it were received. A total of 10,349 postcards were sent in: 9,655 in support, and 694 opposed. Also, a petition supporting the basing and signed by 2,460 people was received.