F-35s, Toxic Sludge, and PFAS – Oh My! The Sorry Legacy of the Military Industrial Complex
By: John E. Peck, executive director, Family Farm Defenders
Version of this article will be appearing in the Summer 2021 FFD Defenders Newsletter
As I write this article, the “sound of freedom” (to paraphrase our former Republican WI Governor, Scott Walker) is roaring over my home as F-16 fighter jets practice their take-off maneuvers from the nearby Truax Air Base. None have crashed (yet) in my neighborhood, though one did go down killing the pilot in a remote area of the UP of Michigan just last Dec. I recall how when I arrived at UW-Madison for grad school back in the 1990s that Amish farmers had submitted an unprecedented petition to state elected officials, requesting the end of low level military flights (100-300’) in WI’s Driftless Region. The number of livestock miscarriages, buggy accidents, and cattle stampedes were almost too many to count. For a community built around pacifism, the ominous presence of such infernal war machines must be a constant spiritual challenge.
The latest proposal to base F-35 fighter jets in Madison and other communities across the U.S. has renewed the public debate over the utility of our military, as well as its legacy. As part of his 1961 farewell address at the height of the Cold War, Republican Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the insidious influence of the military industrial complex. In another speech he lamented excessive military spending as a waste of scarce public resources – “the jet plane that roars overhead costs three quarters of a million dollars. That’s more than a man will make in his lifetime. What world can afford this kind of thing for long?” Half a century later, the F-35 has now become the most expensive weapon system ever developed – $1.7 trillion and growing, a final price tag per plane of $100 million. It costs twice as much ($40,000 per hour) to fly a F-35 compared to a F-16. Some branches of the military have already balked at this boondoggle and cancelled their Pentagon orders.
Retired Air Force Colonel, Rosanne Greco, who spent 30 years on active duty, is a prominent voice in Save Our Skies, the community organization opposing the F-35s being based in Burlington, VT. Her opposition to the plane is based upon its complicity in perpetuating a dangerously obsolete airborne nuclear triad (including the B2 and B52 bombers). Unlike a bomber, though, the F-35’s capacity for armageddon with its two 50 megaton bombs is in the hands of a single pilot. Given its stealth capacity, the F-35 is also designed for offensive capacity – for example, Israel recently used the F-35s it received from the U.S. to carpet bomb targets in Gaza as part of its ongoing deadly conflict with Palestine.
Of course, today the perceived enemies of the U.S. have changed and the supposed wars we wage have become even vaguer. Who is a terrorist – and how does one even defeat terrorism? Is that just the name the big army calls the little army (no doubt, the rebellious colonists at Bunker Hill would have been terrorists in the mind of King George III if he had that word in his vocabulary back in 1776…) Shouldn’t we consider global climate change to be a major threat to our national security? Little did our ancestors realize that the military itself could prove to be one of the greatest threats to humanity. As the largest single consumer of fossil fuel and producer of toxic waste in the U.S., the Pentagon has assumed a lot of responsibility for its existence.
The synthetic chemicals known as PFAS were originally created because of their amazing versatility and longevity (hence their nickname “forever chemicals”). But PFAS exposure is now known to cause many adverse effects – according to the EPA these include cancer, immune system disorders, low infant birth weights, and thyroid problems. PFAS derivatives are now found in the blood stream of 98% of all U.S. residents, with nearly 200 PFAS hot spots in 39 states threatening the drinking water of 110+ million people. Fort McCoy in WI is one such site, that is also responsible for contaminating nearby trout streams. The DNR ordered the Pentagon to deal with toxic PFAS runoff from Fort McCoy back in 2018, but nothing has happened. Decades of use of PFAS-laced flame retardants, hydraulic fluids, and other chemical compounds at Truax Air Base and an adjacent fire fighting training site, led to the recent shutdown of Madison’s well #15 – from which I’ve been drinking city water for years – now deemed unsafe for human consumption. Runoff from Truax has thoroughly contaminated Starkweather Creek, too, that flows into Lake Monona – and the DNR recently issued fish consumption warnings for the entire Yahara River Lake Chain. For many struggling residents who rely on fishing to supplement their family’s diet, PFAS has become an environmental justice issue. Same goes for the predominantly lower income neighborhoods with many people of color who live in the Truax flight corridor. These folks will suffer excessive noise levels, adverse health consequences (especially for children), and face the costly prospect of trying to relocate to quieter neighborhoods with much higher rents. A huge swath of my community has been declared a de-facto “military sacrifice zone.”
Unbeknownst to many, PFAS also threatens our nation’s food supply. For example, in March 2019 it was reported that a New Mexico dairy farmer, Art Shaap, had to start dumping 15,000 gallons of milk per day from his farm, and laid off 40 employees because his well water had become so tainted with PFAS from the nearby Cannon Air Force Base. His beef animals and irrigated crops were also too contaminated to sell on the open market. The Madison Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD) peddles its biosolids as as a fertilizer, with an estimated 37 million gallons per year being applied on 5,000+ acres of WI cropland. This material contains PFAS residues, but the MMSD along with 125 other sewage districts across the state have refused to start testing such, despite an explicit request from the DNR to do so. Is ignorance bliss? One is reminded of the chilling 1995 book, Toxic Sludge is Good For You, by longtime FFD member, John Stauber, and Sheldon Rampton.
The former DNR chief under Republican WI Gov. Tommy Thompson, George Meyer, has noted that members of Congress often prefer to spend more money building a new aircraft carrier than earmarking military funds for cleaning up the Pentagon’s toxic legacy. This carefree notion of weapons programs being a sacred cash cow for luring federal taxpayer dollars back into one’s home district is bipartisan – with both WI senators, Tammy Baldwin (D) and Ron Johnson (D) being ardent F-35 supporters. Other boosters such as the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce are quick to cite the many jobs and the subsequent economic multiplier effects provided by having the Air National Guard Base at Truax – implying that without the F-35s the base will close. Opponents of the F-35 counter that the Air National National Guard could certainly pursue a more peaceful less toxic mission – such as being the Midwest hub for rapid airborne response to address climate change induced disasters such as historic floods, storms, and wild fires. And Madison could also serve as a national model for a fullscale clean-up operation. Unfortunately, mitigation of the existing PFAS contamination is not a prerequisite for basing F-35s at Truax. Their presence will simply add to the ticking toxic timebomb.
In his Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell astutely remarked “you see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market gardeners.” John Kinsman, the founder of Family Farm Defenders and reluctant WWII veteran (who passed away on MLKJ Day in 2012) was a lifetime peace and justice activist. When he urged the organization to join Farms Not Arms shortly after the outbreak of the Iraq War, I remember him saying that turning swords into plowshares was not enough. We needed to transform our entire economy and philosophy towards nonviolent conflict resolution. If we ever wish to achieve a just transition towards food sovereignty, then we will need to consign the reckless, toxic, and profligate F-35 to the dustbin of history. Think of all the actual good we could bring about in our world with $1.7 trillion dollars? A much better task would be to roll up our sleeves and restore planetary health and foster global friendship instead.
For more info on how you can join the grassroots anti-F-35 campaign in WI, visit:www.safeskiescleanwaterwi.org
For more info on PFAS and what you can do to demand phase-out and clean-up of these toxins, visit: www.cswab.org