Forest plot held hostage in fight for town’s safety

by

In the misty mountains of western Tokyo, a plywood shack stands defiantly. For almost 51/2 years, it has displayed yellow banners shouting “Protect the Water!” and “Take Back the Forest!” in bold opposition to the municipal waste-disposal facility that is literally just outside its door.

Legally, the shack, as well as the small park and gardens that share its 461-sq.-meter plot, is just signatures away from becoming a part of the 184,000-sq.-meter Futatsuzuka waste site in Hinode, western Tokyo. Preparations for expropriating the plot to expand the existing landfill at the site were completed in March, with compensation totaling 5.7 million yen already handed over to either land owners or deposited with a third party for appropriation at a later date.

But the 2,831 local residents and environmental activists who purchased the forest plot in November 1994 are determined to hang on.

Instead of leaving, protesters have filed suit with the Hachioji District Court, claiming that they still have claims to the property. They allege that the local entity in charge of operating the waste facility failed to meet with all plot owners and adequately explain the terms of the expropriation, as specified by law.

It’s a last-ditch effort in what is likely to be a desperate fight to the end on the part of protesters, who demand that officials disclose environmental data on the facility and take measures to ensure the safety of area residents.

As a precaution against seizure, Shin-ichi Hashimoto has been living in the shack since March 30.

“This plot has served as something of a brake (on local authorities’ waste disposal policies),” said Hashimoto, who managed a French restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi district before accepting a post as caretaker of the trust association’s plot in 1994.

Protest against the facility has been fueled by memories of 1992, when it was discovered that waste water had leaked from Hinode’s other waste disposal facility in Yatozawa, which had been touted as state-of-the-art. Concerned citizens claim the same is happening at the Futatsuzuka site, endangering the health of residents, some of whom live just 400 meters away.

So long as protesters’ property remains on the land, officials cannot bulldoze it over, Hashimoto claims, and local government officials must apply to the Tokyo governor to force through expropriation.

“But under the law, (the protesters) are trespassing,” said Yoshinari Nakajima, a spokesman for the Saitama District Wide Area Waste Disposal Union, which runs the disposal site. It is made up of officials from the metro government and from the 27 cities and towns whose waste it takes.

About 80 trucks from cities like Machida and Hachioji in the Tama district come to the Futatsuzuka site every day, carrying an estimated 600 tons of ash and “moenai gomi,” or nonburnable household waste.

Securing land for garbage has become a critical issue in municipalities across the nation. Tokyo alone generated 5.27 million tons of household waste in fiscal 1998, according to the latest available statistics issued by the metro government. Landfills are being filled at an alarming rate.

The Futatsuzuka facility was created to take over after Hinode’s Yatozawa landfill reached maximum capacity in 1998. The existing 2.5 million-cu.-meter landfill within Futatsuzuka is expected to become full by 2003, and officials are hurrying to expand it by reclaiming the plot still occupied by protesters.

Funds contributed to the town of Hinode from the 27 bodies using the facility totaled 600 million yen in fiscal 1998.

“But you can’t just bury nature forever,” said Kiyoe Tashima, a resident near the site and vice president of the Hinode Forest, Water and Life Association. Tashima complains that she can’t hear the birds singing over the hum of dump trucks at the waste site.

“Nowhere in the debate did I get a feel from officials that they understand the real issue — that everyone needs to consume less,” she said.

The refusal of protesters to relinquish the property has been partly strengthened by the lack of dialogue with municipal authorities, who have long ignored residents’ demands to see more data concerning the landfill and its effect on the surrounding environment.

Even a 1996 court order backing the activists’ demands failed to convince authorities to release data on water quality. That ruling was overturned at the high court level in August 1997.

“Giving up (the land) means giving in to a mentality that citizens should just sit back and accept what authorities say,” Hashimoto said. “Hinode has become a symbol for environmentalists nationwide — we can’t back down.”

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, however, has hitherto shown little sympathy for the activists’ movement.

“There is a flurry to buy plots of land after the administration decides on a project there,” Ishihara said.

“Public works projects take time because officials have to go see these people and take measures to compensate them,” the governor said, adding that property owners’ rights were being unduly emphasized.

When push comes to shove, a waste facility official said, municipal bodies will send a request to the governor to carry out the expropriation.

But Tashima of the residents’ group said that the governor’s comments show a complete lack of awareness concerning the issue.

“It’s true that garbage has to go somewhere,” she said. But the question is where the garbage goes and how officials guarantee the safety of residents where disposal sites are situated, she said.

Activists are demanding that municipal officials launch a joint study of dioxin levels from the landfill with residents before the summer. But talks are stalled, as the two sides have yet to reach an agreement on the criteria for the studies, according to Hinode officials.

The fundamental question, however, is why remote places like Hinode are most commonly chosen for landfills, Tashima says.

“We can’t avoid creating garbage,” she said. “It’s a truth we need to face . . . Hiding the garbage doesn’t make it go away.”