Amid protests from local residents opposed to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Defense Ministry contractors on Sunday started a seabed survey for landfill work off the coast of Nago, the planned relocation site for the facility in the city of Ginowan.
Small boats carrying protesters tried to approach a survey vessel but were blocked by Japan Coast Guard ships. The landfill work for the base transfer has been approved by Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, but local residents want the base moved to a location outside the prefecture.
Bore holes are to be drilled at 16 locations off the Henoko district of Nago to investigate the strength of the seafloor to prepare for landfill work necessary to build an airstrip.
Japan and the United States have agreed to relocate the Futenma base away from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko. The survey is set to be completed by Nov. 30.
At the time of Nakaima’s landfill approval in December, the Japanese and U.S. governments expected the replacement facility to be completed within nine years.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a congressional think tank report warned Friday against heavy-handed actions by the Japanese and U.S. governments over the planned transfer of the base.
The Congressional Research Service noted that local opposition may grow further in the future regarding the relocation plan.
“Any heavy-handed actions by Tokyo or Washington could lead to stridently antibase politicians making gains in Okinawa, particularly in the gubernatorial election scheduled for November 2014,” the report said.
Referring to Nakaima’s landfill permit in December 2013 for the replacement facility in Nago, the report stressed, “The United States and Japan cleared an important political hurdle in their long-delayed plan to relocate the Futenma base.
“Despite this progress, many challenges remain to implementation,” it also said. “Most Okinawans oppose the construction of a new U.S. base for a mix of political, environmental, and quality-of-life reasons.”
Whether to go ahead with the relocation plan will be the biggest issue in November’s closely watched election.
“Now that Nakaima has approved the landfill permit, it is unclear what authority any future governor would have to overturn this decision,” the report said.
“Some observers have suggested that a future governor could reject the approval on the grounds that the environmental impact assessment of the base site was incorrect,” it said.
On Nakaima’s requests for the Japanese government to stop the operations of the Futenma base within five years and revise the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement to allow on-base environmental investigations by prefectural officials, the report said, “The extent to which the Japanese government can meet Nakaima’s demands will likely influence how Okinawans ultimately will judge his approval of the landfill permit.”