Two previous columns have focused on a United States government lawsuit seeking a provisional injunction against a private incinerator in Ayase City, Kanagawa Prefecture. The Americans, however, are not the only ones eager to shut down the facility. Other neighbors, too, are fired up about Envirotech and its owner, Tetsuro Murata.
The U.S. Naval Air Facility at Atsugi lies just north of Envirotech. Immediately to the south sits the Ayase Industrial Park, home to 26 companies and about 800 Japanese workers. Due to seasonal wind changes, Envirotech fumigates Atsugi base in summer. In winter, the industrial park falls victim.
Years of gritty black and gray smoke is just one complaint from the Ayase park firms. Last month, members of the Ayase Industrial Park Association realized that a large pit Murata dug adjacent to their property in 1987 then filled with tons of incinerator ash may be laced with extremely toxic dioxin. The original pit is approximately 50 meters long, 40 meters across, 20 meters deep and has no liner. For over 13 years, any toxins in the ash have been leaching into the soil and water.
Requests for relief began 15 years ago when park representatives petitioned Ayase City and Kanagawa Prefecture to order Envirotech to install filters and build a tall stack to disperse the acrid fumes. In response, the mayor of Ayase City, Susumu Suzuki, said: “If we make the stack taller, it will help diffuse the smoke, but at the same time it will expand the area [impacted]. So even if we make the stack taller, it will not prevent the smoke from spreading.”
Association members got the message: They, and their concerns, were being written off.
Four years ago, a survey of park employees revealed that numerous workers were suffering sore eyes, headaches and nausea.
Last spring, after U.S.-Japanese joint monitoring finally forced Japanese officials to admit that Envirotech was the source of toxic fumes, Kanagawa Prefecture demanded that Murata install bag filters. Nevertheless, the smoke remains a problem, according to park representatives, and it has become difficult to hire young workers, young women in particular, because they are spooked by fears of dioxin from Envirotech.
In addition, under Japanese law, the maximum allowable level of dioxin in ambient air is 0.6 pg-TEQ/m, but this standard does not apply to industrial areas, which are exempt. Ayase park representatives call this “inhumane,” discriminatory treatment. Murata has repeatedly cited this legal loophole to deflect criticism of his emissions.
Park association members are clearly disillusioned with the system. They now believe foreign pressure is the only way to make headway with government officials and, in turn, Envirotech.
The Americans, though, are just as frustrated. A decade ago, in April 1991, Rear Adm. J.J. Hernandez wrote to Kanagawa Prefecture complaining that the incinerator was “exposing all the people in the surrounding area to large amounts of toxic fumes on a daily basis.” Filters were not installed until last year.
“The fact that we brought this lawsuit was ultimately because of the failure of the government of Japan to resolve this issue,” says Cmdr. Alexander Whitaker, a U.S. Navy lawyer stationed at Yokosuka. “It was an unfortunate last resort to come into Japanese court. We had on the table a pledge from [former] Prime Minister [Keizo] Obuchi to [former] President [Bill] Clinton that there would be bag filters installed — and they were, albeit late — and that there would be a tall stack up and operating by March 2001. To date nothing has been done. Nothing. We still look to the government of Japan to fulfill its promise.”
Obuchi made the pledge during a visit to Washington in May 1999. Money for a stack was appropriated in the 2000 budget, but the fiscal year ends this month and there is no tall stack on the horizon.
Victims and observers of Envirotech confirm that the incinerator has engaged in an ongoing pattern of unconscionable and criminal activity. Kanagawa Prefecture and Ayase City have effectively classified Ayase park workers as expendable, second-class citizens, and to a lesser extent have viewed Atsugi base residents and workers similarly. For a decade, Envirotech has been allowed to burn whatever, whenever and however much it chooses, while its neighbors’ pleas for the rule of law have fallen on deaf ears.
Moreover, the stonewalling that has obstructed efforts to clean up Envirotech points to more than just bureaucratic inertia. Prefectural officials warned the Ayase park association to be careful of Murata, calling him “very complicated.” When asked what they understood “complicated” to mean, one association representative told me, “He’s yakuza-like.”
Another retorted, “Yakuza-like? He is a yakuza,” then related an encounter with Murata in which he was threatened by several “thugs.”
Park association members are also appalled that at least one prefecture and two city employees have left government posts for jobs at Envirotech. Clearly relations between Envirotech and those responsible for overseeing the incinerator have been close. At worst, they may have resulted in obstruction of the law and be responsible for negligent endangerment of Japanese and U.S. citizens.
In a letter to the governor of Kanagawa Prefecture last March, the Ayase Industrial Park Association urged the national and prefectural governments to “take such measures as relocation of the [incinerator] or suspension of its operations.” Last week, Ayase park representatives assured me their stance has not changed.
“A Green Forum for a New Millennium: Prosperity or Collapse?” will be held March 24 at the Environmental Partnership Office of the United Nations University in Shibuya, Tokyo. Anyone interested in any aspect of the environmental movement is welcome to attend, to share information and learn how to get involved. The forum will be conducted in English.