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U.S. marine wins compensation for Okinawa toxin exposure and calls for tests on residents near Futenma

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The U.S. government has awarded compensation to the ailing former marine at the center of allegations that Agent Orange was dumped on Futenma Air Base in Okinawa.

On Aug. 10 the Board of Veterans’ Appeals ruled that retired Lt. Col. Kris Roberts, chief of maintenance at the installation in the early 1980s, had developed prostate cancer due to “exposure to hazardous chemicals.” The presiding judge based the decision on evidence including medical reports, statements and “photographs of barrels being removed from the ground.”

However, the carefully worded ruling avoids specific reference to Agent Orange, which the Pentagon denies was stored on its Okinawa bases.

Roberts is the first veteran known to have won compensation for exposure on Futenma, and now he is urging the military to come clean about what really happened at the air base.

“The Marine Corps has a moral and ethical obligation to alert others who may have been exposed,” he said in a telephone interview.

According to Roberts, he was ordered in 1981 to investigate high chemical readings detected in waste water running from the installation into neighboring communities in and around Ginowan, the city that surrounds Futenma. After checking the area of concern near one of the base’s runways, Roberts and his team unearthed more than 100 chemical barrels, some marked with the tell-tale orange stripes used to label defoliants. On orders from Futenma’s top brass, Roberts says the barrels were moved by Okinawan base workers to an undisclosed location.

After the discovery, Roberts developed a number of serious illnesses, including heart disease and prostate cancer.

Roberts, now a state representative in New Hampshire, told The Japan Times that the Marine Corps has a duty to track down the U.S. service members and Japanese base employees who handled the toxic barrels. He also called on U.S. Forces Japan to inform local residents.

“The base’s drainage pipes distributed the contaminated water all around the civilian communities near Futenma — not only in Ginowan city. USFJ needs to warn them of the dangers, and doctors need to look for clusters of diseases similar to the ones I have,” he said.

Asked whether USFJ would notify others who may have been poisoned, Michael Ard, director of the MCIPAC (Marine Corps Installations Pacific) Public Affairs Office, referred comment to the Office of U.S. Marine Corps Communication, which had not replied by the time of publication. Tiffany Carter, USFJ media relations chief, likewise declined immediate comment.

Such complacency does not surprise Manabu Sato, a professor in political science at Okinawa International University, which is situated adjacent to the Futenma base.

“All available data regarding the contamination must be presented to Okinawan communities — but the U.S. government will not do so, nor will the Japanese government demand such action. Both governments want to conceal any past transgressions committed by the U.S. military on Okinawa so as not to fire up anti-U.S. military sentiment,” he said.

The tacit admission of toxic contamination at Futenma will be particularly troubling for the U.S. government. The air base has long been a thorn in the side of U.S.-Japan relations.

Okinawans have long demanded the closure of Futenma Air Station, but these latest allegations of contamination on the base raise fears that even after its planned closure and the relocation of many of its facilities to Henoko in the northeast, the land at Futenma will be too contaminated to use for years, if not decades.

According to publicly available Department of Veterans’ Affairs records, more than 200 U.S. vets believe they were poisoned by Agent Orange while serving in Okinawa. Their sicknesses include multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease and peripheral neuropathy — illnesses for which the Department of Veterans’ Affairs compensates Americans exposed to defoliants in Vietnam, Thailand and the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

Although photographs and military documents corroborate claims that defoliants were present in Okinawa, Washington maintains that no such evidence exists. To date, only a handful of U.S. veterans have been awarded compensation for exposure to Agent Orange in Okinawa.

However, many veterans hope this will change following the discovery of more than 100 buried barrels in Okinawa City on land that used to be part of Kadena Air Base, the Pentagon’s busiest Okinawa installation during the Vietnam War. Some of the barrels — the first of which were unearthed in June 2013 — contained traces of Agent Orange’s three ingredients: the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and the TCDD dioxin. Japanese and international experts assert that the discovery proves military defoliants were present in Okinawa.

In June this year, the most recent tests revealed that some of the standing water near the barrels contained levels of dioxin thousands of times higher than environmental standards permit. Meanwhile, the Okinawan authorities’ handling of the cleanup has come under fire. Construction workers at the dump site wear little protective clothing and the plastic tarpaulins covering the excavation allow water to accumulate. In July a typhoon flooded the site, and residents claim the water was pumped into a nearby river without first being checked for contamination.

The Okinawa City dioxin dump site highlights the shortcomings of the current U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which prevents Japanese officials from conducting environmental tests on U.S. military bases and relieves the Pentagon of all responsibility to clean up Japanese land formerly under its control.

As well as dioxin, high levels of other toxic substances — including lead, arsenic and PCBs — have been discovered in recent years on former military land in Okinawa.

The Japan Times first published Kris Roberts’ account of the discovery of suspected defoliants at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on June 15, 2012. Jon Mitchell received the inaugural Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Freedom of the Press Award for Lifetime Achievement earlier this year for his investigations into U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and other base-related problems. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Liars N. Fools

    Well done, Jon Mitchell. America tries very hard to hide its incompetence, too. I am happy that Lt. Col. Roberts will get compensation and hope the investigation will go as far as it needs to to uncover the complete set of facts.

  • TaxiManSteve

    And where is the American media on this… < crickets >

    • jwtn

      You should remember this is a media bias, In accordance to a fired senior us military official, Robert D. Eldridge, who also claims to be a respectful scholar

      http://www.nippon (dot) com/en/column/g00298/

  • Bio energy

    why no country in which is ruled by war mongering bankers should occupy any other in the name of peace from terrorism. American media is Murdoched.

  • Enkidu

    Jonathan,

    Again, I appreciate your reporting on these issues, but I do have a few comments:

    Although photographs and military documents corroborate claims that
    defoliants were present in Okinawa, Washington maintains that no such
    evidence exists.

    Washington has denied that Agent Orange was present on Okinawa. They have not, to my knowledge, maintained that no defoliants were present on Okinawa. When you addressed this issue in a previous column you cited a DoD report that said that Agent Orange was not present on Okinawa and then you misconstrued it as saying that no defoliants were present on Okinawa. (If anyone is curious, I can post a link to the report.) If you have since found additional evidence of a blanket denial, please post it here.

    Some of the barrels — the first of which were unearthed in June 2013 — contained traces of Agent Orange’s three ingredients: the herbicides
    2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and the TCDD dioxin.

    Again, I’ve mentioned this here before, but these three signature components are also the signature components of a variety of post-war herbicides, including some that were manufactured by Dow Chemical. In fact, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D were two of the most widely used herbicides in the world, and a regrettable manufacturing byproduct of 2,4,5-T is TCDD. In other words, it looks like you’ve found defoliant, but you haven’t provided evidence that it’s Agent Orange.

    Look, herbicides are dangerous stuff, whether you call them Agent Orange or not, so I’m not sure why you’re so intent on proving that Agent Orange was present. The fact that dioxins and other dioxin-like compounds (e.g., PCBs) have been found in such high concentration should give you enough to continue reporting on. And in the end, if you do find real evidence that Agent Orange was present on Okinawa, I will be the first to congratulate you on your coup. In the meantime, however, I wish you would stick to the facts as they are.

    On a more technical level, you said that “… the plastic tarpaulins covering the excavation allow water to accumulate.” That’s not really a problem as the purpose of the plastic tarpaulins is to accumulate the water so that it can be removed before it leaches into the ground. The real failure here is that their surface water controls were not up to handling a typhoon, something that the engineering firm/contractor should have planned for in Okinawa. The water should have been collected and removed before it had a chance to leach into the ground. Having worked on similar remediation projects in the US, I’d be keen to hear more from you on this project and its progress.

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    • At Times Mistaken

      Re: “They have not, to my knowledge, maintained that no defoliants were present on Okinawa.”
      A report (“INVESTIGATIONS INTO ALLEGATIONS OF HERBICIDE ORANGE ON OKINAWA, JAPAN”) prepared for the Office of the Deputy
      Under Secretary of Defense (I & E) states that “Internal DoD guidance now and during the Vietnam Era allowed only the use of “commercially available – registered herbicides” on US military installations applied by “licensed applicators”. Licensed applicators could only apply commercial herbicides – they were not authorized to apply tactical herbicides.” I’m not too sure about Agents White and Blue since I think they were ok’d for commercial use, but it would seem that Okinawa was officially off limits for the tactical rainbow herbicides (like Agent Orange and more). I would think it might be a big no no if it turns out any were brought there and it looks like the evidence points in that direction.

      • Desk Pilot

        Actually, Agents White and Blue were not cleared for commercial use. The issue that seems to be lost is everyone wants to claim the defoliants used on Okinawa was Agent Orange. I am 100% convinced it was not. The various components of Agent Orange were individually already pretty strong commercially available defoliants. I am convinced we used them independently on the island, and exposure to the individual defoliants are what is causing the illness cases. If you attack Agent Orange specifically, you are going to lose because the USG can continue with the ‘no Agent Orange’ line and be correct; but if you simplify it to the defoliant argument, which the USG has acknowledged, then there’s a path to success. Not everything is Agent Orange.

      • At Times Mistaken

        Thanks for straightening me out about Agents White and Blue. I thought I read something like that in the report I cited but I guess I got it wrong and no doubt your right. I believe you may be right about sticking to the defoliant argument too. As reader Endkidu (above) notes: “herbicides are dangerous stuff” no matter what they are labeled. Okinawans and US Vets alike who have been exposed should be given the medical treatment they need and compensation they deserve. Isn’t this recent decision in favor of retired Lt. Col. Kris Roberts some kind of an admission by US officials that people (US servicemen and women, Okinawans, and others) on Okinawa were exposed to defoliants that do make you sick? Rather than simply search for the elusive ghost of Agent Orange I would think you could cover more ground by moving forward on the solid evidence that is already there.

  • http://Www.gamecollectorsparadise.com/ Tom Denk

    Thank you Jon Mitchell for keeping an eye an reporting on agent orange… Since US and the Japanese Got. trying everything to forget, hide and denying about it. For the veterans and the people living here – It’s time for the truth.

  • donschneider

    Jon Mitchell is a champ ! Thank you Jon for your tireless work on EVERYONE’s behalf !

    • jwtn

      Too bad that tokyo and washington are going to do what ever they can do to discredit this. I wonder what will happen when the rest of the world learns the truth.

  • At Times Mistaken

    I’m confused. Is this article using the word “defoliants” interchangeably with Agent Orange (For example: “…his team unearthed more than 100 chemical barrels, some marked with the tell-tale orange stripes used to label defoliants.”) ? Didn’t the US have a rainbow of color-coded defoliants in its arsenal with the most infamous, Agent Orange, packed in orange-striped barrels, but also others like Agent Green in green-striped barrels, Agent Pink in pink striped barrels and so on?

  • msgtroyfoster

    Thanks Jon Mitchell. I am on my last hurrah. Fighting the VA 29 YEARS. I handled, mixed and power sprayed Agent Orange herbicides on Andersen AFB Guam from Sept 68 to Jun 78. I am dying from Colon rectal cancer with a massive tumor. Sticking out of me. I am very, very ill. DR Robert Haddock Chief for the Department of Heath and Social services is ready to release an eye opening report on the TCDD DIOXIN CONTAMINATION ON GUAM CAUSED BY ME.

  • johninokinawa

    Good stuff, John! The LDP has three papers to rail against. The Ryukyu Shimpo, Okinawa Times and Japan Times!

  • Malcom next

    Is everyone else still denied if they develop it too?