Universal Studios impact survey blasted as ‘false’

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

OSAKA — Parts of an environmental assessment report prepared by Universal Studios Japan have been criticized as being false and incomplete by a former waste disposal firm president.

The report, submitted to the Osaka Municipal and Prefectural governments, includes detailed environmental data on a 54-hectare site near Osaka Bay that will serve as the site of the USJ theme park, which is to open in spring 2001.

The report finds that building the theme park would present no major negative influence on the local environment. Last June, Nao Watano, a former executive of waste disposal firm Nihon Sogo Service, revealed that during the 1980s and early 1990s, he supervised the illegal burial of nearly 700,000 tons of industrial waste on a 7.2-hectare portion of the site, which is owned by Sumitomo Metal Industries.

Subsequent environmental tests carried out by Sumitomo and the city of Osaka showed high levels of lead, arsenic and chromium. A city-appointed panel of four experts then ordered further testing and presented its recommendations at the beginning of March.

The panel’s recommendations included removing waste contaminated at levels above environmental standards from the site and burying waste within these standards beneath a proposed parking lot. The city has agreed to carry out the recommendations.

But the state of the waste has become a center of dispute between Watano and city officials. In the most recent report, the final section deals with underground contamination at the Sumitomo site, and states that samples of industrial waste taken consisted mostly of sand and pebbles, and would therefore have little effect on the groundwater table.

“That part of the report is false,” Watano said. “We didn’t bury sand and pebbles. We buried liquid waste and covered it with sand,” he said, insisting this was done at the order of Sumitomo officials.

In addition, some of the waste was stored in sealed drums. Watano said he buried nearly 40 drums, each of which contained 200 liters of paint, paint thinner and lacquer.

“Using a bulldozer, we dumped the steel drums in a 2 meter by 10 meter area slightly east of the center of the site. They were buried around 2 meters underground,” he said.

Watano also claims the city and Sumitomo are hiding evidence of something he could only describe as medical waste that was buried by Sumitomo as well.

“One day in early 1990, while I was working on the Sumitomo site, a powerful stench, coming from a pit on the edge of the site, overwhelmed us. It smelled like medical waste, and work stopped because it was stinging our eyes,” he said.

“Sumitomo officials ordered the area to be covered over with clean dirt. The stench lingered in the air for about three days before dissipating,” Watano said, adding that workers were not told the source of the smell.

Watano found that the unknown smell came from the northern end of the Sumitomo site, between the planned “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws” exhibitions, not too far from where he says he was ordered to bury the drums of waste.

City officials have continued to react to Watano’s charges by saying preparations were under way to have waste that exceeds environmental standards removed by the end of July, although they admit to having seen his records.

“I have been shown Watano’s documentation of where he buried the waste,” said Akira Fujimoto, a city environment official.

“However, as removal of the waste has not yet started, no drums or strange smells have been discovered,” Fujimoto said.

Maps drawn up by Watano showing where he buried the waste indicate that, of the 33 locations within the site where test samples were gathered last summer, none was in the area where he buried the drums or near where the strange smell originated. The test sample locations were chosen by Sumitomo and city environmental officials.

Osaka officials have no direct answer to the question of why they just don’t meet with Watano to confirm his data, claiming only that they are confident of their environmental testing methods to date.