Editorial: Base contamination information disclosure must precede land return plan

October 18, 2016 Ryukyu Shimpo

Thorough decontamination of land used by the U.S. military must be carried out before it is returned. The Okinawa Defense Bureau has submitted a proposal plan for the return of roughly half of the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area, but the fact that its plan limits the decontamination period to “12 to 18 months” is unacceptable.

Decontamination is a major obstacle to realizing the early return of U.S. military base land in Okinawa. There are countless examples of time taken for decontamination delaying land return, such as the case of the former Onna Communication Site, where cadmium, mercury, PCB, led, and arsenic have been found, and the case of former Camp Kuwae land, where led and asbestos have been found.

U.S. military veterans testify that defoliants containing highly poisonous dioxins were sprayed in the Northern Training area, and assert that they now suffer health damage from those poisons. There is also the problem of contamination from U.S. military helicopter crashes.

The Okinawa Defense Bureau submitted its proposal without engaging in prior consultations with the prefectural government, despite the prefectural government’s request for such consultations. It is only natural that the prefectural government has rejected the plan. Past experience shows that cutting a survey and decontamination period that should take 2 to 3 years in half is much too short. Rather than considering the plan a done deal, the Okinawa Defense Bureau should consult with the prefectural government to determine the period required for surveying and decontaminating the land.

The root of the problem is the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, under which the United States does not owe an obligation to carry out decontamination and return the land to its former state before it is returned. Decontamination efforts have been delayed as a result of the Okinawa Defense Bureau acting noncommittally while information regarding the state of environmental contamination within the bases remains undisclosed to the prefectural government.

The U.S. military still denies the use of defoliants, and the Defense Bureau accepts this denial out of hand, ignoring the testimony of U.S. military veterans and neglecting its duty to clarify the facts.
The Okinawa Defense Bureau should demand from the U.S. military information regarding the history of U.S. military training, aircraft accidents, and contaminants used within the Northern Training Area. The prefectural government should demand that the Defense Bureau take necessary measures.

The land return implementation plan was also presented to the local governments in Kunigami Village and Higashi Village. It is understandable that the local governments in these villages desire the early return of the land and are working hard to achieve a “Yanbaru National Park,” hoping to see the area become a candidate for registration as a World Nature Heritage site.

However, insufficient decontamination will cause problems down the line. It must be understood that thorough decontamination will contribute to environmental conservation of a future World Nature Heritage site.

The U.S. Marine Corps Installations Pacific “Vision and Strategy 2025” acknowledges, with respect to the return of Northern Training Area land, that “51% of the unusable Northern Training Area will be returned,” and welcomes the relocation of helipads for Osprey use, stating, “additional available training acreage will be developed where possible, making full use of…land acreage.”

It is only natural for the U.S. military to return training land it considers “unusable.” The Okinawa prefectural government should continue to uphold its opposition to Osprey operations and also make strong demands of the U.S. military and Japanese government to conduct thorough decontamination of the returned portion of the Northern Training Area.

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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