SOUTH BURLINGTON — Supporters of basing F-35 fighter jets with the Vermont Air Guard say they were unaware that petitions they submitted to the U.S. Air Force would not be used to gauge public opinion.
That’s part of the fallout from a recent Air Force admission that it accidentally misstated public support for the project in its recently revised Environmental Impact Statement.
Last year, Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., and other supporters circulated petitions addressed to the South Burlington City Council at service stations in Franklin and Chittenden counties in support of the F-35, collecting more than 10,000 signatures.
Cioffi said if the signatures were counted individually, support for the project would have been approximately 95 percent.
“We didn’t know that the petitions would be received and basically processed as one comment,” Cioffi said.
Nicholas Germanos, a civilian project manager who worked on the environmental impact statement, said that signatures attached to petitions, pro or con, submitted during the public comment period are not used to calculate public support for the project.
Cioffi believes petitions on both sides should have counted.
“It goes both ways. We have respect for those who oppose the basing,” Cioffi said. “We certainly think that their opinions should be honored as well.”
Copies of the petition were then sent to the Air Force during the public comment period for the previous EIS releases in March last year. There were 913 individual comments responding to the former EIS, 35 percent of which supported the basing project.
“It was pretty grassroots,” Cioffi said. “We sensed that the public opinion in northwestern Vermont was in support.”
The playing field
Rosanne Greco, an opponent of the F-35 and a South Burlington City Councilor, said that collecting signatures across the country to support the F-35 is “astroturfing”, that is, the process only creates the impression of widespread support.
She said that signatures do not represent the interest of those who will be affected by the project. She once reviewed a petition sent to the South Burlington City Council from the business community with 1,600 signatures supporting the F-35 from around the country, 191 of which were from people in South Burlington.
“In this day and age, you can pretty much buy signatures,” Greco said. “It means strangers who don’t live here think it’s a good idea, so what?”
She said if the method were to be changed, it should weight people living within the 65 decibel day-night average sound level zones more heavily.
“Overwhelmingly, the people who live inside the noise zone are against the F-35,” Greco said.
Germanos said that the Air Combat Command stands behind the revised figures and will not recalculate the public opinion results using signatures as individual responses.
“We have been given no direction, as of yet, to count those signatures as individual support comments,” he said.
Germanos said the same method will be used for future comments on the revised draft. He has currently received seven comments, all of which were opposed to the project. The public comment period ends July 15.
The problem with petitions
Germanos said the wording on Cioffi’s petition inaccurately assumed that the F-35 is necessary for the survival of the Air National Guard. He said petitions often make general or inaccurate statements.
“That was an incorrect assumption to be stated in the petition. There was never an Air Force statement that the F-35 was necessary to save the Guard, as the title of the petition indicated,” Germanos said.
He said some petitions were circulated throughout New England and are not representative of those who may be affected by the project.
“It really wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the public’s views on the possible beddown,” Germanos said.
He said the opposition increased when the Air Combat Command reviewed the comments submitted by people living within the proposed 65 or higher decibel day-night average sound level zones.
“It’s easy to see that the number opposed to it greatly increases the closer they are to the airport,” Germanos said.
He said it would not be fair to others who took the time to write detailed letters to count the individual comments.
Germanos said the Air Combat Command received 935 handwritten and oral comments used to calculate public opinion on the project from across the nation. 913 of these comments were received from Vermonters.
He said some comments that did not state a position on the project and were not used in the public opinion report.
Though the public opinion results will be considered in the final decision, he said the purpose of the comments was to answer residents’ questions.
The detail over methodology came up after the Air Force acknowledged that there was an error in the EIS on the level of public support for the F-35. Greco said that she was informed of the error and then notified the Air Combat Command before they acknowledged that the support for the project was overstated as 80 percent when it was actually 35.
Germanos said the contractor who composed the report was unaware of the error. He said a correction will be made to the final draft of the statement.
“We regret that that happened and we don’t know the basis for why it happened,” Germanos said
Section 1.5.2 of the current EIS incorrectly reports public support for the F-35 as 80 percent. However, support is actually 35 percent. The comments and the Air Force’s responses can be found in the draft environmental impact statement’s Appendix E of Volume II.
Chris Hurd, member of Stop The F-35 Coalition, said that his team has found nearly two pages of errors in the EIS that they plan to present to the Air Combat Command.
“This is very, very dangerous,” Hurd said. “We are trusting the military to do an honest, credible and legitimate report.”