Editorial: After discovery of carcinogenic fire-extinguishing foam discovered outside of U.S. base, use of harmful chemicals must be eliminated immediately

April 12, 2020 Ryukyu Shimpo

Fire-extinguishing foam containing PFOS, a type of carcinogenic organic fluorine compound, was discovered to have escaped outside of MCAS Futenma and onto the streets of Ginowan, polluting the rivers and falling on the streets in residential neighborhoods. This includes the foam floating over the heads of children at a preschool on the following day, April 11. This is an absolutely inexcusable incident.

At the very least, the U.S. military should allow Okinawa Prefecture and Ginowan City entrance into the base to conduct an investigation to identify the cause of the incident as well as responsible parties.

The Japanese government should also immediately and strongly demand that the U.S. should immediately remove all fire-extinguishing material that contains PFOS.

The fire extinguishing foam was activated by a fire-extinguishing system in one of the bases hangars, and leaked out through the south side of the base via a water drainage system to the surrounding area.

The drainage system connects directly to Hiyara River, which flows out into Makiminato Bay and into the ocean off the western coast. The foam also floated up into the air, falling into the Ginowan residential neighborhoods of Maehara and Ojana.

PFOS has been known to cause cancer, and its use is banned in Japan due to the associated health risks. It is also regulated internationally, and both Japan and the U.S. have been working to replace all fire extinguishing material with replacements that do not contain PFOS.

Despite this, there was a similar incident at MCAS Futenma in December, 2019, when fire-extinguishing material containing PFOS leaked out from the base. Taking into account the current incident, it is clear that the U.S. is not adequately progressing in their replacement of the hazardous material.

This is not limited to MCAS Futenma either; there was another incident where a high content of PFOS was discovered in a river adjacent to Kadena Air Base.

An investigation by Okinawa Prefecture found that the concentration rose significantly after water had drained out from the base.

The prefecture requested permission to enter the base to conduct a survey due to the high likelihood that the source of the contamination was Kadena Air Base, however they were denied by the U.S. military.

The toxic foam danced down the streets of neighborhoods, and polluted the waters white. Even so, why is it so difficult for the local authorities to investigate its source?

The biggest obstacle is the Japanese-American Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

Despite the pollution, the base cannot be entered for an investigation without permission from the U.S. military, so the reality is that there is no visibility for the Japanese government, local authorities, or area residents.

The inside of the bases are effectively an extraterritorial area.

While the U.S. forces in Japan are supposed to conform to the environmental regulations set bilaterally by Japan and the U.S. in the Japan Environmental Governing Standards (JEGS), the U.S. military stubbornly sticks to their own internal rules, so the effectiveness of these standards are severely lacking. The laws that were put in place to protect the living conditions for those in proximity to the military installations target things such as noise pollution, and do not cover things like soil and water contamination.

On April 12, it will have been 24 years since Japan and the U.S. made an agreement for the return of MCAS Futenma.

However, no steps have been taken towards the return, and the training flights continue while the base is surrounded by homes.

Residents are regularly subjected to the dangers of aircraft accidents and environmental pollution. Nothing has been done to change the danger to resident’s health and safety.

Japan and the U.S. must continue conversations towards the end of operations at MCAS Futenma, and the return of all base area without relocating facilities within the prefecture. A policy to “remove the danger” can mean only this.

(English translation by T&CT and Sam Grieb)

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