Universal gets go-ahead as experts urge paving of toxic waste

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

OSAKA — Part of the nearly 700,000 tons of toxic waste found on the proposed site for Universal Studios Japan should be buried under a parking lot, city officials announced Monday, based on recommendations by a team of experts.

In addition, the 18,000 tons that exceeds environmental standards should be used as landfill in Osaka Bay, they said. With the committee’s recommendations, construction of the theme park is expected to proceed as planned, despite the discovery of toxic traces at another part of the site.

The much-awaited recommendations came more than six months after it was revealed that industrial waste had been illegally buried on a 7.2 hectare site in south Osaka owned by Sumitomo Metal Industries.

After a series of environmental tests conducted by Sumitomo and cross-checked by the city showed high levels of lead, arsenic and hexachromium, a committee of four environmental experts was appointed to come up with recommendations by the beginning of this year.

Environmental tests carried out since last autumn included 277 surface and groundwater samples taken at 33 locations on the Sumitomo site. Results showed that eight of the soil samples had toxins above the minimum prescribed safety levels. However, quality of the groundwater was judged to be within current environmental standards.

The committee offered eight different recommendations for dealing with the waste, including dumping 18,000 tons worth of waste with toxins above minimum environmental standards into a landfill near Izumi Otsu on Osaka bay, the report said.

Waste mixed with sand and dirt containing levels of toxins within environmental standards should be buried under the site of the proposed theme park’s parking lot, which should be covered with asphalt, the report said.

Although the city, Sumitomo, and USJ all say appropriate actions are being taken to deal with the waste, the committee’s recommendations have angered local citizens’ groups, which question the way the tests were carried out.

“Last December, we asked the city to allow a neutral third-party to participate in the environmental survey, but were rebuffed,” said Yoneko Matsuura of Mihariban, a watchdog group. Matsuura said that Mihariban will petition the Japan Bar Association, and possibly the Diet, to demand a separate survey.

Over the past several months, Canadian and U.S. environmental assessment companies have contacted Universal Studios officials in California about the possibility of conducting independent environmental tests. Osaka city officials, however, have publicly responded to suggestions of outside testing with resistance, saying they had confidence in their testing methods.

USJ officials say construction must begin this fall for the park to open as scheduled in April 2001. The committee’s report does not recommend a timetable for cleaning up the waste, but city officials said the project will continue “as scheduled.”