Test drilling work starts on new airport off Nago

Kyodo

About 300 people protested Thursday in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, as the government began a seabed drilling study in preparation for building an offshore facility to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station.

The Naha Defense Facilities Administration Bureau started the study in the afternoon to find out what kind of embankment is needed to build a military-civilian airport that will take over the helicopter operations of Futenma in Ginowan, also in Okinawa.

“We’ll fight this battle with our dignity and by nonviolent means,” Teruo Onishi, 61, a representative of a group against U.S. helicopter bases, told the morning rally. “We want the government to withdraw.”

Among the demonstrators were Nago residents, their allies and Diet lawmakers.

The drilling, scheduled to begin April 19, was delayed by sit-ins.

In order to avoid clashes with the protesters, the government’s survey vessel departed from a port located about 50 km from the site.

The government’s plan is to conduct a three-year environmental-impact assessment in waters off the Henoko region in Nago. It will then take about 9 1/2 years to reclaim land in the sea and build the airport.

In Tokyo, Takemasa Moriya, Defense Ministry vice minister, told a Thursday afternoon news conference that he hopes the time it will take to construct the airport can be shortened by more negotiations with local residents.

“We had tried to start (the drilling) since April, but were unable to do so because of the sit-in protests,” he said.

“We decided to go ahead after studying weather conditions and the effects (the timing would have) on the overall construction process.”

The crash of a U.S. military helicopter on a university campus near the Futenma base on Aug. 13 raised concern and fueled protests over the dangers of the base, which is located in the middle of a residential area.

But as it will take at least a decade until the base can be relocated to Nago, there are also increasing calls from Okinawan residents for Futenma to be returned to Japan before the relocation is completed.

Environmental groups have also urged Japan and the United States to scrap the construction plan, reckoning it would destroy one of the last healthy reefs in Okinawa and push many species closer to extinction.

Okinawa has three-quarters of all the U.S. bases and facilities in Japan and they occupy more than 10 percent of Okinawa’s land.