What would Martin Luther King, Jr. say about the proposal to locate F-35 supersonic fighter jets at Madison’s Truax Field Air National Guard base?
In his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King spoke passionately about the injustice of the growing spending on war—while anti-poverty projects were de-funded. “A Nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” he said.
A January. 12, 2018 Cap Times letter to the editor by former Madison Alder J. Michael Shivers called the proposal to base the F-35s at Truax Field in Madison an “outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money.” Each of the 18 jets to be located at Truax costs $150 million dollars—for a total of $270 billion.,
Echoing Dr. King’s speech, Shivers asked, “Why not take the cost of about half of these planes and use it for health care for the deprived, or housing for the less fortunate, and of course, let’s not forget our veterans.”
Where are Madison’s liberals and progressives now?
“Back in the “old days” when I served for 20 years as a Madison alderman,” Shivers noted in his letter, “there were many great liberal alders, including our present Mayor Soglin, who I think would have been very opposed to this waste then…Where are these liberals now?”
In fact, only one elected official in Madison, Alder David Ahrens, has publicly questioned the F-35s, highlighting the danger of jet crashes and noise impacts on people on Madison’s east and north sides. Other purportedly progressive, liberal politicians, including U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Senator Mark Miller (a former Air National Guard fighter pilot)—and yes, even former anti-war activist Mayor Paul Soglin—have expressed strong support.
But Paul Soglin’s attitudes about the military and fighter jet presence in Madison have vacillated wildly since he was first elected Mayor in the 1970s. Below is just a bit of that history.
“Nuclear explosives are nothing new” at Truax base
In 1974, not many years after his heyday as a student anti-war activist, Soglin was strongly criticized by his former supporters on the left for supporting the Air National Guard Unit at Truax.
Less than a year later, in early 1975, the fire department reported to city officials that it was being instructed on “special precautions” in case large Chinook (CH-47) helicopters flying in and out of Truax went down—because they were carrying “radioactive materials.” The Army wouldn’t confirm or deny this. Mayor Soglin was alarmed, and in letters to senators and the secretary of defense, he wrote, “we have every reason to believe that the materials carried are considerably dangerous and most likely radioactive” and “are in all likelihood nuclear weapons.” He asked for a report on the contents of the helicopters and asked that shipments be stopped if they contained “dangerous material.”
The same day, the Capital Times reported that the Army confirmed that the helicopters were transporting missile components for an anti-ballistic missile defense site based in North Dakota, but still didn’t explicitly confirm that they were nuclear explosives.
The next day, however, Airport Superintendent Robert Skuldt told the Capital Times that “nuclear explosives are nothing new here. Nuclear weapons were stored at Truax Field during the early 1960s and their presence was common knowledge among city, county and state government officials.” Nuclear weapons were carried by F-89 fighters stationed at Truax and flying air defense missions ranging up into Canada, he reported. Further, Skuldt said he had attended “countless” briefings for local and state government officials focused on the nuclear weapons at Truax.,
Though the airport superintendent had clearly confirmed that Truax stored and transported nuclear materials for decades, the controversy about whether or not the Chinook helicopters contained nuclear materials, explosive or not, continued for months. In a March 6, 1975 Wisconsin State Journal article, an Army spokesman admitted that certain components” carried on the flights were “of an explosive nature” but if an explosion happened “it would not be nuclear explosion.” He added that “it is national policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence, at any location of nuclear weapons. This would also include the movement of nuclear weapons.”
Mayor Soglin was outraged. “The completely uncommunicative method by which the Army reached its initial decision to utilize Madison for these transfers,” he was quoted, “followed by its unwillingness to discuss this situation with local city officials to date, is unsatisfactory.” He added, “these flights should not be made into Truax because of the hazards posed to persons living in the flight paths and in close proximity to the airport.”
On March 7, 1975, U.S. Representative Lee Aspin (D-Racine) called the nation’s anti-ballistic missile system “a wasteful and frankly most useless project” and said the use of Truax ad a transfer point for shipments to anti-ballistic missile sites creates “a potentially serious safety hazard for the Madison community.”
A few days later, Soglin’s administrative aide James Rowen announced a plan to begin a class action lawsuit to halt the helicopter flights (the lawsuit would purportedly be privately funded and not involve the Mayor’s office). The Environmental Decade also planned to file a court intervention to stop the flights.
The lawsuits would be based in part on the Army’s violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); the Army did not complete an environmental impact statement, which is required before a federally licensed activity that can affect the environment is initiated. Federal code also required that military agencies “consult with area residents and local officials before beginning such an operation”—which they clearly had not done.
The lawsuit threats were effective. In May 1975 the Army said the helicopter flights would end and the lawsuits were dropped.
Mayor Soglin, 1995: F-16s “belong in a combat zone”….Mayor Soglin, 2017: F-35s are “wonderful news, a holiday gift for families”
However, Truax fighter jet crashes, which had occurred regularly since the 1950s continued. In 1995, after yet another fighter jet crash, the Wisconsin State Journal wrote: “The F-16C’s safety record has been criticized by Mayor Paul Soglin, who argues that flights represent an unacceptable risk to neighborhoods and businesses near the base. The F-16s belong in a ‘combat zone, but not here in the city,’ Soglin said.”
But in subsequent years, Soglin’s attitude shifted toward overt praise and support for the Air National Guard base at Truax. After another fighter jet crash outside of Madison in 2011, in which a pilot was injured, Soglin praised the Air National Guard for its safety precautions. “I know that the Air National Guard is concerned for the safety of civilians” and “is taking appropriate steps to ensure everyone’s safety,” he was quoted.
Fast forward to the current F-35 proposal. In December 2017, just before announcing he would run for governor, Soglin gushed with enthusiasm for the F-35s at Truax—telling the Cap Times the decision to locate F-35s at Truax was “wonderful news…truly an early holiday gift for many families, and for the entire area.”
What will the F-35s carry? What do the F-16s carry now?
In his recent letter to the editor, S. Michael Shivers noted that the price tag for the F-35s is too much, “when most of us know that our next global war will mostly be a nuclear one, and not one of ‘air superiority.’”
However, as the history described above attests, the F-35s could very well be involved—directly or indirectly–in future nuclear wars. What will F-35s flying in and out of Truax carry? Are there any situations in which they will carry nuclear components and/or explosives? Both the F-16s and the F35s are capable of carrying nuclear missiles and other kinds of bombs, and even though many flights in and out of Truax are training flights, it seems very possible that in some situations these jets might carry nuclear weapons.[i],
Have city and state officials even asked these questions? Given Mayor Soglin’s concerns in the 1970s about nuclear materials being ferried in and out of Madison, and about fighter jet crashes in the 1990s, one would hope that he obtained detailed information on what the F-35s will carry before offering his strong support for them. Has he? Madison citizens deserve to know.
Soglin told the Cap Times in December that he is confident there would be “more good news to come” about the F-35s after the environmental impact study is done. According to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Air National Guard is required to do a full assessment of the potential environmental, social, and economic impacts of the decision to locate the F-35s at Truax.
If a truly scientifically accurate and comprehensive environmental impact study of the site is done, it will not bring the “good news” Soglin promises unless critical health and environmental impacts are downplayed or ignored. Since the EIS will be done by the Air National Guard, unfortunately we expect that will be the case, unless elected officials, government agencies, and citizens have a voice in the process and insist on a thorough and scientific analysis.
The noise impacts of the F-35 jets alone are enough to raise significant health and environmental concerns. One analysis indicates that the F-35s will be four times louder than the F-16s currently at Truax—and anyone living on the north and east side of Madison knows how horrific the F-16 noise is. This level of noise is far more than just an annoyance; it has significant health impacts on people (especially children) living near airports and military fields. Noise also negatively impacts birds and other wildlife.
Military sites are also notoriously contaminated with toxic chemicals—and the Truax base is no exception. Operations and maintenance of fighter jets, helicopters, and other military machinery require many solvents, lubricants, petroleum products and other chemicals—and of course, large quantities of jet fuels and other types of fuels. Given this, it is not surprising that the Air National Guard site, which has been in operation since 1942, is contaminated with chlorinated solvents, petroleum products, lubricants, metals, and a plethora of other chemicals.
Unfortunately, the Air National Guard has never comprehensively tested or remediated the site, and the DNR has not asked that they do so. Many contaminants, such as the highly toxic solvent trichloroethylene (TCE, which was and may still be used at the site), were inadequately assessed or not assessed at all. As far as we know, nobody has ever monitored for any kind of nuclear contamination, despite the fact that nuclear materials were stored at and transported in and out of the site for many years (if such an analysis was ever done, it is not publicly accessible). Also, the environmental impacts of the many plane crashes at or near the Truax base since the 1950s have not been considered in any of the environmental analyses of the site to date.
Further, investigative reports on the site say “drainage on the base is provided by man-made ditches and culverts which connect to Starkweather Creek.” Stunningly, the impacts of the site’s soil and groundwater contamination (and numerous toxic spills) on Starkweather Creek have never been assessed (or if they have, assessments are not included in publicly available reports). This creek eventually flows through the Truax and Carpenter Ridgeway neighborhoods just south of the base. People eat fish from this creek.
In 2011, the WI DNR issued a “no further action” letter to ANG for the site even though the vertical and horizontal extent of the groundwater contamination has never been delineated, many key contaminants were not tested, and many NR 700 laws were not followed. Unfortunately this has become standard DNR practice
No citizen engagement, environmental justice ignored
To date, engagement with Madison citizens about environmental or social impacts of the Truax base and fighter jets has been abysmal or nonexistent, and as far as we know, neither the Air National Guard, nor city and state elected officials, engaged or consulted in any way with Madison citizens before supporting the decision to locate the F-35s in Madison.
The No F-35s in Madison Facebook page reported in early January that a “scoping” meeting for the Environmental Impact Statement for the project would be held on Jan. 11. However, the meeting was canceled without explanation, to be rescheduled later (date not disclosed). Most problematically, there is no publicly available information about the timeline for the EIS process and how citizens can engage in it.
Last but not least, the people most affected by this decision—those living in the low income apartments near the base (Truax and surrounding neighborhoods)—have not been involved in decisions about the F-35s, even though they will be the most affected by the noise and toxic soil, water, and air pollution. The impacts of the F-35s, and the ongoing Truax base operations, to these low income people, many of whom are people of color, is a significant environmental justice issue that has never been raised in past analyses of the Truax site, nor has it been mentioned in recent discussions about the F-35s.
Why aren’t our public officials raising these questions? The City of Madison has an equity lens tool process to determine if City actions advance equity or further racial, ethnic and social inequities. Given the proximity of Truax Field to low-income and very diverse neighborhoods, why doesn’t the City use its much-touted “equity lens” tool to determine if the environmental injustice issues are outweighed by the promised benefits, before the Mayor calls the siting of F-35s at Truax “wonderful news” and confidently proclaims “more good news to come” after the EIS come out? Apparently, Mayor Soglin knows that the military always trumps the environment—and is confident that the Trump Administration, in particular, would never find environmental justice problems at this site.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal” -Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967, Beyond Vietnam
In the 1970s, as described above, Mayor Soglin raised a public stink about the Army’s lack of communication with city officials, writing to senators and the department of defense demanding information. Shortly after that, his administrative aide James Rowen initiated a lawsuit based on the Army’s lack of engagement with citizens and lack of an environmental impact study. A democratic senator called out the extreme waste of the anti-ballistic missile system that Truax nuclear flights supported. In 1995, Soglin adamantly argued that fighter jets should not operate in a city.
Where are these liberal elected officials now, Michael Shivers asks? Good question. Other than Ald. Ahrens, no elected official in Madison has even raised questions publicly about the F-35s—about the costs to taxpayers, the noise, the environmental impacts, the impacts on the low income people living next to the base. None have demanded that their constituents, who will be significantly impacted by the F-35s, be engaged in the decisions about them.
In February of 2017, eastside Madison resident and environmental engineer Steve Klafka drafted a resolution opposing the F-35s for the Common Council to consider. Ald. Marsha Rummel encouraged Klafka to draft the draft resolution, and MEJO wrote Rummel expressing support for it, but she never introduced it to the council.
Some might say, in their defense—“this is not Vietnam, the times are different.” Yes, they are different. There is no single war like Vietnam, but instead the U.S. has been in a number of perpetual wars since 2001, in many countries throughout the world. The Truax fighter jets support these wars. These ongoing wars have been going on for so long, and are so invisible to people, that many forget that they are happening.
Others might argue that we need these expensive fighter jets for our security. On this issue, Harry Richardson’s October 12, 2017 Isthmus Op-Ed appropriately asked, “What do we need for security?…National security is not just military—we cannot be secure if we are not healthy, housed, and educated, or if our dams and bridges fall apart.”
Indeed, funding our country’s enormous military, including the F-35s, means less money (or no money at all) for infrastructure and social programs that provide health care, housing, food, and numerous other services for people who need them—making these people, and our whole society, much less secure. Richardson calculated that taxpayers in Madison alone contributed $9.6 million a year toward the F-35s. Think of all the social needs that could be met with this money!
Disturbingly, the perpetual wars supported by the giant U.S. military—often in the name of protecting and supporting privileged lifestyles in the U.S.—are wreaking havoc upon the lives of countless people in far-away countries. The Wisconsin Air National Guard plays a role in this. As Richardson’s column notes, our Air National Guard doesn’t just protect the U.S. and provide disaster relief; its planes are routinely sent overseas—e.g., Air National Guard were deployed to Korea and the Middle East in summer and fall 2017. “In such places,” he writes, “fighter planes like the F-35s are used for bombing raids that kill many civilians, including children, creating resentment and fueling terrorism. In 2016 along, the U.S. dropped over 26,000 bombs in seven countries, primarily Iraq and Syria.”
Why are so many purportedly progressive politicians in Madison supporting the F-35s? Apparently, Soglin, who has repeatedly touted the economic benefits of the jets, agrees with Governor Scott Walker, who said the F-35s (and federally-funded upgrade to the Truax base needed to support them) will be like “pouring jet fuel” on the Madison-area economy (from Wisconsin State Journal, December 22, 2017). Supporters have also said the project will create jobs, but countering this, Richardson argues, even the Madison Chamber of Commerce “promises no ‘new’ jobs for Madison” from the F-35 project. Further, he points out, “excessive military spending actually limits the creation of jobs in our community, because dollars spent on military projects create fewer jobs than the same spent in almost any civilian enterprise.”
We suspect there are actually some liberal, progressive elected officials in Madison who have substantive questions about—or even oppose—the F-35s, but are afraid to publicly raise these issues given that the Mayor and other prominent, purportedly “progressive” officials have come out so strongly in support of these military endeavors.
These silent elected officials, and others afraid to raise questions about the F-35s, should consider the words of Martin Luther King, Jr in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech: “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war” (yes, we are in a time of war–perpetual war). King goes on, “Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world…the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility of our limited vision, but we must speak.”
 According to Wikipedia: The F-35 program “is the most expensive military weapons system in history, and has been much criticized inside and outside government, in the U.S. and in allied countries. Critics argue that the plane is “plagued with design flaws”, with many blaming the procurement process in which Lockheed was allowed “to design, test, and produce the F-35 all at the same time, instead of… [identifying and fixing] defects before firing up its production line”. By 2014, the program was “$163 billion over budget [and] seven years behind schedule”. Critics also contend that the program’s high sunk costs and political momentum make it “too big to kill”. A United States Navy study found that the F-35 will cost 30 to 40 percent more to maintain than current jet fighters; not accounting for inflation over the F-35’s operational lifetime. A Pentagon study concluded a $1 trillion maintenance cost for the entire fleet over its lifespan, not accounting for inflation. The F-35 program office found that as of January 2014, costs for the F-35 fleet over a 53-year life cycle was $857 billion.”
 Russ Feingold called for the end of the F-35 program as part of his “fiscal fitness” plan when he was running for office in 2016.
 According to the article. “Nuclear weapon storage at Truax was presumably within provisions of a contract signed between the city and the U.S. Air Force in 1956, when Air Force units were stationed here. Among the provisions of that agreement was a section permitting the flying in and storage at Truax of ‘security classified Class A weapons.’ That phrase is not explained in the document. Skuldt said it has not been uncommon over the years for explosive material to be shipped into Truax for transfer to planes and shipment onto another point. He said the, traffic was particularly heavy during the Vietnam war when large semi-trucks carted explosives from the Badger Ordinance Works near Bamboo to Truax. It has continued on an irregular basis since that period. The only difference this time, Skuldt said, is that helicopters are ferrying the material in.”
 In the early 1960s, as reported in the Capital Times, citizens raised concerns about fighter jets carrying nuclear devices—and what would happen if they crashed. At a meeting before 100 citizens, a colonel from the Air National Guard assured people that “In an accident, if the trigger would explode it would scatter plutonium dust which emits a relatively harmless ray. Even if breathed or swallowed, its effects would not be very serious. The explosion of the trigger would be dangerous for about 1,500 feel. In the event of such an accident, onlookers should be kept 1500 feet from the wreck and Air Force experts at Truax should be called. The Truax Field number is Cri 9-5311.” In 1969, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on a magazine story by a White House reporter for the Los Angeles Times showed Truax as an Air National Command base—one of 100 “classified sites “where U.S. armed nuclear weapons are kept in readiness for attack, or are manufactured and stored.” But the Pentagon at that time refused to confirm or deny whether nuclear weapons were stored at Truax.
 About a month later, the Washington Post reported that the helicopters carried “unarmed” nuclear weapons that “cannot explode” but a crash could cause “the leakage of dangerous radioactive material.” (The Capital Times, April 14, 1975)
 Later in the article, it said: “A military source familiar with the situation at the 128th told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that some personnel jokingly refer to the F-16Cs as ‘lawn darts.’ The nickname refers both to the needle-nose looks of the jet and the two recent crashes.” …“Records published today by the newspaper show that since the Air National Guard began flying F-16s in 1984, there have been 38 serious crashes. In the past five years, 88 F-16 accidents occurred throughout the Air Force, Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard, Pentagon data indicate. More than 200 crashes involving the jets have occurred since 1976.”
According to Wikipedia, F-35s can carry nuclear bombs—and according to the Ultimate F-16 website, F-16s can as well: “The F-16 has six underwing hardpoints and one under-fuselage hardpoint for the carriage of fuel tanks or weapons. A huge variety of weapons can be carried, including air-to-surface missiles, “smart” bombs, conventional iron bombs, and even tactical nuclear weapons.”
 Each jet crash creates a significant environmental release. If a jet with nuclear materials crashes, this could release radioactive materials into the environment. But even if there aren’t nuclear materials aboard, jet crashes will cause toxic spills, because of the large amounts of jet fuel that need to be carried on the plane. Firefighting chemicals are also highly toxic. In 2002, an F-16 having mechanical trouble dropped two fuel tanks into Lake Mendota, each 2,125 lbs; the tanks broke up releasing fuel into the lake. The 2016 jet crash north of Madison released jet fuel and hydrazine onto the crash site; the Army even got a vapor intrusion letter. See here and here. Also important to consider in jet crashes is the materials jets are made of. According to a report by the group Project on Government Oversight , F-35s will be “covered in a highly toxic stealth coating layered over the composite material.” It notes that “When the stealth coating of an F-117 was burned at the facility known as “Area 51” in the 1980s, two employees died and five more were permanently disabled by the toxic fumes.” In fact, according to F-35 Wikipedia page, the F-35 will be “the first mass-produced aircraft to include structural nanocomposites, namely carbon nanotube reinforced epoxy.” A large number of studies show that some types of carbon nanotubes are as toxic as asbestos if not more so.
Dr. Maria Powell is President of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization (MEJO), based in Madison, Wis. Her doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies focused on risk communication and health disparities (based on race, class, and gender) related to the consumption of contaminated fish. After finishing her doctorate, she was an associate scientist with the National Science Foundation-funded Nanoscale Science & Engineering Center (based at UW), where she co-led a large interdisciplinary research team that assessed the social and environmental impacts of nanomaterials for five years.