Pollution ruling may aid other victims of bad air

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The Tokyo District Court is scheduled to hand down a ruling Tuesday that could redefine how the national government, local authorities and vehicle manufacturers deal with the problem of air pollution.

After nearly 6 1/2 years and 46 trial sessions, plaintiffs and defendants will be back in court to hear the fate of the suit, filed by a group of 99 Tokyo residents, or members of their families, who suffer from respiratory ailments.

The plaintiffs claim the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. and seven automakers should be held responsible for air pollution levels that have allegedly caused their health problems.

The plaintiffs are demanding that air quality be brought to acceptable levels and roughly 2.24 billion yen in damages.

The case marks the first time that car producers have been named in a suit.

“We are fighting to establish the responsibility of carmakers and seeking the establishment of a system to provide redress for the victims of air pollution,” said Kiyomi Hara, who heads the secretariat for lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

“If we get a ruling recognizing the responsibility of automakers, that would be a complete victory. I think we are 90 percent there.”

The suit accuses seven diesel vehicle manufacturers of neglecting to incorporate available pollution prevention measures in their vehicles. This technology was installed in some exported vehicles.

It also cites branches of the national government, as well as the Tokyo government, for failing to manage roads in a manner that protects citizens’ health.

Plaintiffs hope the lawsuit will lead to the establishment of a redress system under which automakers would compensate individuals suffering from respiratory problems caused by air pollution and cover their medical costs.

A previous system set up by the national government in 1974 was abolished in 1988, when a government panel declared that air pollution had improved to a level where a causal link to respiratory problems could no longer be substantiated.

“We breathe the same air, we have the same respiratory problems as victims that receive money. It is not fair,” has become a common refrain among plaintiffs.

Additional demands include tightening diesel regulations, reducing traffic and halting the construction of major roads to improve air quality.

The suit has momentum on its side. In 2000, two rulings found that suspended particulate matter, the sooty dust expelled from diesel engines, caused respiratory problems among plaintiffs that lived or worked along major highways — within 50 meters of the road in the case of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, and 20 meters for one arbitrated in Nagoya courts.

Settlements were subsequently reached in both cases, with the government agreeing to take steps to improve air quality and companies responsible for the air pollution paying the compensation.

But the suit that comes to a head on Tuesday has an added twist: the plaintiffs claim that air pollution pervades Tokyo’s 23 wards and claim that residents who suffer from air pollution-related respiratory illnesses should be eligible for compensation.

The plaintiffs contend that Tokyo has so many intertwined major roads that the air in the entire heart of the city could cause breathing problems.

Environment Ministry officials contend that asthma rates in Tokyo are not substantially higher than in other parts of the nation and are thus not due to air quality. They admit, however, to be being ambivalent about the lawsuit and do not believe that a clear victory for the government would be the best result for air quality in the city.

Many speculate that the court will find it hard to hold automakers responsible for air quality, or recognize all of central Tokyo as meriting special air-quality measures. The court is more likely to follow recent rulings and find a causal relationship between plaintiffs living or working within a certain distance of major highways.

The outcome of the case will also set the tone for three other similar suits filed by more then 400 people against the same defendants.

While no comprehensive statistics exist for adults, the number of Tokyo youngsters receiving treatment for respiratory problems has risen steadily, from 32,037 in 1992 to 51,058 in 2001, while the population of young people as a whole has shrunk.

Moreover, national air quality data for 2001 showed that air along Tokyo’s roads was the dirtiest in the country in terms of nitrous oxides, with only 37 percent of roadside monitors registering satisfactory figures. Only 3 percent of the monitors showed acceptable levels of suspended particulate matter, down from 34 percent in 2000.

“The government stance on this is that we have done our best to improve air quality and we will keep doing our best,” maintain Environment Ministry officials.

They also counter that while diesel particulate standards may have been implemented slightly more slowly than in developed Western countries, by 2005 the nation’s diesel emission standards are expected to be the stiffest in the world. In addition, fuel quality is to be improved, leading to cleaner air, officials maintain.

Even if the court orders that air quality be improved, there is no guarantee it will happen.

Victorious plaintiffs in the Amagasaki suit — who settled with the government following an appeal — are still dissatisfied with the lack of improvement in air quality, as ordered by the court, and appealed to a pollution arbitration panel under the public management ministry in mid-October to force bureaucrats to act.

Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, the losing side will likely appeal the ruling. Less certain is the future of Tokyo’s skies.