MONTPELIER, Vermont — The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday put public support for basing the F-35 fighter jet in Burlington at 35 percent, acknowledging that its earlier estimate that the project had 80 percent support was in error.
The higher number was provided in a revised draft environmental impact statement issued last month on the Air Force proposal to use the Vermont Air National Guard base at the Burlington International Airport to house some of the planes. It said the proposal had support from 80 percent of those commenting, with 20 percent opposed.
But on Tuesday, Nicholas Germanos, a civilian project manager in Washington heading the preparation of the environmental impact statement, said the statement of support was wrong.
"In actuality, 65% of the 913 comments concerning Burlington were opposed to the basing at Burlington," Germanos said in an email, adding that the real numbers could be gleaned from an appendix.
"If one looks at the comment response matrix at the end of Appendix E, one can see the distribution of comments in general opposition vs. general support of the Burlington basing action is close to 65% against to 35% in favor," his email said.
Germanos acknowledged that the Air Force was aware of the real numbers on public sentiment, but had not included them in the revised impact statement's main text.
"It was found during our review of the document before the (second) public comment period began; and was supposed to be revised, but was not done so," Germanos wrote.
Germanos said the figures would be corrected in the final draft environmental impact statement. He said in a phone interview he could not say how the shifting understanding of public sentiment might affect any final decision by the Air Force on whether to choose the Vermont Air National Guard base as home for the plane.
How much weight to give the public comments in the basing decision will be up to the secretary of the Air Force, Germanos said.
"It's hard to say how much of a factor the public comments are as far as general support or general opposition," he said. "It's the substance of the comments that should drive the decision, not just how many there are, because in reality so many of the comments say the same thing."
Opponents seized on the news.
"This is illustrating more fudging on the part of the Air Force," said South Burlington lawyer and project opponent James Marc Leas. "They're admitting they knew about it and didn't get it corrected. We've got a serious legitimacy problem for this basing in Burlington."
He said the Air Force had misreported several other facts during the three years of consideration of Burlington as a home for the F-35, including the size of the populations affected by noise or potential crashes.
Supporters said they were not swayed by Tuesday's announcement. Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., an economic development group, said the Air Force's numbers on public sentiment still weren't accurate, because it had counted more than 10,000 signatures on a petition as just one of the 913 public comments it recorded.
In other words, it appears that the Air Force counts multiple signatures on one petition as one comment, said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and key backer of the F-35.
"The answer seems to be that thousands of Vermonters' signatures in support of basing in Vermont, and hundreds of signatures against basing, were not counted because they were on petitions," Carle said in an email.