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: firstname.lastname@example.org