Okinawa residents sue state, base commander over noise

Kyodo

Two hundred residents living close to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, filed a lawsuit Tuesday calling for night and early morning helicopter flights to and from the base to be suspended.

The lawsuit, filed against the national government and Col. Richard Leuking, commander of the base, demands 300 million yen in compensation for noise created by helicopter operations at the airfield.

The lawsuit is the first involving the Futenma base, which is central to Japanese and U.S. government efforts to consolidate U.S. military facilities in the southernmost island prefecture.

A 1996 agreement between Japan and the U.S. states that the site of the base, which is in the middle of the city’s residential area, shall be returned to Japan in “five to seven years” on condition that an alternative facility is built elsewhere in Okinawa.

But Futenma’s return has been stalled by slow progress on a government project to build a new airfield off Nago in northern Okinawa.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government estimates that construction of the airfield will take up to 15 years.

The plaintiffs live in areas around the base where the noise level reaches 75 WECPNLs or higher. The WECPNL, which stands for Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level, is an international environmental unit based on an index used to gauge airplane noise.

“I feel as if I am being crushed by the helicopter noise,” says Tatsuno Kuba, a 42-year-old housewife who lives just across the road from the Futenma airfield.

The suit accuses Leuking of negligence in failing to prevent the noise problem from affecting local residents.

In past noise-pollution lawsuits involving the U.S. military, Japanese courts have consistently rejected the plaintiffs’ demands on the grounds that the cases are outside the courts’ jurisdiction.

However, residents in Ginowan are trying to set a new precedent by holding the base commander responsible as an individual.

In the lawsuit, the residents are demanding that helicopter operations at the airfield be halted between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and that engine tests resulting in a noise level of 55 decibels or higher be banned. They also want engine tests with higher noise levels to be banned at all times.

The residents are also calling on the Japanese government to carry out a survey of the noise problem around the base.

Takumiu Okazaki, director of the Naha Regional Defense Facilities Administration Bureau, said the government “fully recognizes” that helicopter noise is a serious problem for local residents, adding that it will deal with the lawsuit after consulting relevant government organizations.