Top court orders Gifu to air road impact data

The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a lower court decision and said draft evaluation documents for an environmental impact study on a highway in Gifu Prefecture should be disclosed to local residents.

The top court nullified a previous decision by the governor of Gifu that rejected the residents’ request to see the documents. This decision had been supported by the Gifu District Court and the Nagoya High Court.

It is the first time the Supreme Court has allowed the disclosure of environmental assessment documents drawn up in a project’s early stages. While such assessment studies are always conducted for large-scale public works projects, documents drafted prior to the final decision to go ahead with a project have traditionally not been made available to the public.

Presiding Justice Toshihiro Kanatani of the Supreme Court’s No. 3 Petty Bench ruled that disclosing the documents would not have any major impact on the decision-making process.

Observers said the ruling gives a boost to environmentalists and will push project organizers to conduct their assessments more carefully.

Justice Kanatani noted that at the time the Gifu governor decided to refuse to disclose the documents, the contents of the assessment had already been finalized and made public, and the decision-making process was finished.

He also pointed out that documents such as assessment evaluation papers are drawn up in line with a set of guidelines, and are essentially created with the understanding that they will be made public.

“There can be no harm done to the ongoing project or future projects of a similar nature even if documents prior to the final decision are disclosed after the project is finalized and the decision-making process completed,” Kanatani concluded.

The lawsuit was filed by 10 people who had sought the disclosure of draft documents that were deliberated by a Gifu prefectural panel that evaluated the environmental impact of a portion of the Tokai Kanjodo that was to be built between the city of Seki and the town of Yoro.

The highway, which is currently under construction, is a roughly 160-km road linking cities around Nagoya. It is to pass through the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu and Mie.

The residents filed the lawsuit in March 1999.

The Gifu District Court rejected it, saying the documents they were seeking contained elements of uncertainty and their disclosure could cause unnecessary confusion.

The Nagoya High Court also rejected their demand, saying the release of figures that were still under consideration could further entangle disputes.

Gifu Gov. Taku Kajiwara issued a statement Tuesday saying the prefecture would make efforts to deal with information disclosure matters in line with the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling.