Documents indicate chemical leaks at U.S. base have polluted Okinawa water supply

by

Special To The Japan Times

U.S. documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that lax safety standards at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa may be to blame for the recent contamination of local drinking water sources.

The internal reports expose a spate of accidents at the base during the past 15 years that have involved at least 21,000 liters of fire extinguishing agents — some of them toxic.

In one incident last May, described by base officials as “vandalism,” a drunk U.S. Marine activated a firefighting system. It filled a hangar with more than 1,500 liters of JET-X 2.75 percent — a foam classified by the U.S. government as hazardous. It contains chemicals known to cause cancer, and neurological and reproductive disorders.

Although the agent flowed off the base into nearby waterways and the ocean, military officials decided not to report the accident to Japanese authorities or local residents.

Other incidents at Kadena, the largest U.S. air base in the Pacific, included the escape of approximately 17,000 liters of fire extinguishing agents during a three-day period in 2001, attributed by base officials to mechanical and electronic malfunctions.

Further leaks between 2012 and 2014 totaled more than 3,400 liters. One was blamed on malfunctioning equipment and another on mechanical failure. A third incident that spilled 1,135 liters was recorded as “operator error.”

The revelations appear to confirm suspicions in Okinawa that the base has been polluting the local water system.

Last month, Okinawa authorities announced that high levels of Perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) — an ingredient found in many fire extinguishing agents — had been discovered in waterways near the Kadena base. The area supplies drinking water to seven municipalities, including the prefectural capital, Naha.

According to an announcement Jan. 18 by the Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau, tests conducted between February 2014 and last November recorded maximum PFOS levels of 80 nanograms per liter (ng/L) at its Chatan Purification Plant, rising to 1,320 ng/L in the Dakujaku River, which is fed by water from the base. The bureau also noted that readings from a well within the base in 2008 measured 1,870 ng/L.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes PFOS as an “emerging contaminant” that is readily absorbed by oral ingestion, accumulating in the blood, kidneys and liver. It does not break down easily in the environment or the human body, where it has a half-life of up to nine years.

Due to concerns that PFOS can lead to reproductive and developmental problems, the EPA in 2009 set a provisional health advisory limit for drinking water at 200 ng/L for short-term exposure. Although the Japanese government has not yet set any specific limits, it has fundamentally prohibited production and use of PFOS-containing products since 2010.

The bureau noted that PFOS levels discovered near Kadena Air Base are far higher than other places in Japan: During the past 10 years, the highest reading in any other part of the country never exceeded 22 ng/L.

On Jan. 21, the director of the Enterprise Bureau asked the Okinawa Defense Bureau to seek permission from the U.S. military to access the base to check for sources of contamination. Last year, Japan and the U.S. signed an environmental agreement that theoretically grants Japanese authorities the right to visit military installations in the case of chemical spills. The Kadena contamination issue may serve as a test case for the new agreement.

U.S. Forces Japan did not respond to a request for comment on the recent accidents or if Okinawan officials would be granted access to the base.

The FOIA documents highlight the shortcomings of Japan Environmental Governing Standards (JEGS), the guidelines regulating contamination on U.S. bases in Japan.

While JEGS requires the U.S. military to notify the Japanese government immediately when “a significant spill . . . threatens the local Japanese drinking water resource,” the decision on whether to categorize a spill as “significant” is often left to the discretion of the U.S. military.

In the case of the drunk marine’s dumping of the carcinogenic agent last year, correspondence suggests that base officials at first mistakenly identified the chemical as “nontoxic.”

By the following month they had recognized it as hazardous and they were aware it carried warnings that it should not be released into the environment. However, even though the agent had entered nearby waterways and the sea, because the names of its component ingredients were not listed in the JEGS table of hazardous chemicals, base staff decided there was no requirement to report the accident to the Japanese government.

Emails also show that base officials believed rainfall would dilute the agent, and because the incident occurred at night it was “highly unlikely to draw any public notice because the foam would disipate (sic) before morning.”

According to the correspondence, there had been four previous spills of the same foam, some of which also went unreported.

Manabu Sato, a political science professor at Okinawa International University, called on local and national officials to take action.

“Okinawa Prefecture and municipalities near the base should conduct an independent investigation into the leaks. Moreover the Japanese government should require the U.S. military to notify it of any potentially harmful leakage — regardless of the amount. To decide the significance of a leak should not be left up to the U.S. military,” he said.

The documents on which this article is based were filed for release under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act via the Muckrock organization: www.muckrock.com .

  • johninokinawa

    The US military needs to get out of Okinawa. It’s done more than enough damage.

    • Jeffery Lebowski

      What damage, specifically, are you talking about? As for leaving, the Japanese Self Defense Force is not ready for us to leave. They have a long way to go if they want to be able to stand up to China or North Korea by themselves. If the US abandoned its interest in this region, it would only be a matter of time before North Korea or China took advantage of the situation.

      • johninokinawa

        China and NK are not any kind of threat. You have swallowed the propaganda. China is a major economic threat to the U.S.A. Perhaps that’s why the US is trying to spread panic about them.

      • Jeffery Lebowski

        You don’t think that China and NK pose a threat to Japan if the US military wasn’t here? I would say that if it wasn’t for US Military occupation, China would most definitely own the Ryukyu Islands and probably even Japan itself.

      • jwtn

        The US military is what makes Okinawa the primary target, Im getting sick of this is whats best for you attitude from my country. If they want us to leave then its time to leave.

      • jwtn

        The US military is what makes Okinawa the primary target, Im getting sick of this is whats best for you attitude from my country. If they want us to leave then its time to leave.

      • jwtn

        The US military is what makes Okinawa the primary target, Im getting sick of this is whats best for you attitude from my country. If they want us to leave then its time to leave.

      • Apophis2036

        China is a big threat to peace in East Asia. They created man-made islands in international waters to be used as military bases and are threatening the Japanese Senkaku Islands everyday with naval and air incursions.

      • jwtn

        Its completely unacceptable for China to repress Tibet, however its perfectly acceptable for America to repress Ryukyu.

      • jwtn

        Its completely unacceptable for China to repress Tibet, however its perfectly acceptable for America to repress Ryukyu.

      • Conrad Brean

        Agreed.

  • nosnurbd

    It seems there might be a better way to ensure security than to remain an occupied country, now for 70 years with no foreseeable end in sight.

    • Apophis2036

      Yes, it is called Japanese militarism. Is that better than a US-Japan Security Treaty? With the expansion of the Chinese military in the region, to include the creation of man-made islands in international waters that threaten US allies and the constant incursions near the Japanese Senkaku islands, do you expect Japan to remain defenseless?

      • johninokinawa

        I expect Japanese politicians to fulfil their job descriptions and use diplomacy to handle potential problems in the area. I don’t expect them to use the “SEND A GUN BOAT” philosophy that the US inherited from the U.K. There is no problem in this area that cannot be handled by a professional diplomat. The problem is that neither the US nor Japan has any.

    • jwtn

      The japanese only want it because the Okinawans pay the price for it. Unfortionally American is a country that goes out of its way to exploit every opportunity to maintain its supremacist power.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Thanks to the author for his sustained contributions highlighting the cost of our continued occupation of Okinawa and the implicit condemnation of the central government in refusing to hold our military accountable.

  • Jeffery Lebowski

    I live in Okinawa. In my neighborhood, there is an Okinawan man with a diesel dump truck who changes his oil and does maintenance in an empty lot and dumps all kinds of toxic waste right into the ground next to where he parks his truck. There is literally a pool of black muck that has accumulated in the years that I’ve been here. We’ve contacted the city about it and they’ve done absolutely nothing. All that I’m saying is that the media and the local authorities only seem to show one side of the story when it comes to American military in Japan. There are Okinawan criminals and drunk drivers, but you never hear about them in the regular news. The second an American serviceman drives drunk, it’s an international incident.

    • johninokinawa

      Of course it’s an international incident! What you seem to not understand is that Okinawan land is being used by the US military without the support of Okinawan people. The mainland doesn’t want them either. They will not have any more US bases at any price. They want the main bases as far away from them as possible. That’s why they are here. The bases are here because they can get free rent and because of a totally outdated SOFA.

      • Jeffery Lebowski

        Unfortunately for the Okinawan people, Okinawa has too much strategic importance in this part of the world. Location is everything, and that’s why the US military is on this island and doesn’t want to leave. I truly feel sympathy for the Okinawan people that don’t want us here, but they have one organization to blame for the US military presence on this island and that’s the pre-WWII Japanese government. Occupation is what happens to nations that lose wars. The American military is dug into Okinawa like a tick at this point. I don’t see us going anywhere anytime soon. If you ask any old Marines that were here in the 70’s, they’ll tell you that people have been laying out plans to leave the island for decades and it never happens. Right now the plan is to move to Guam by 2030…aint gonna happen.

      • Risa Nakayama

        i basically very much agree with what u say… which city is it though? i’m from Okinawa and may know a local politician who would definitely do something for such an incident, no matter how small it is perceived by the city officials. and i’m freakin scared

      • Jeffery Lebowski

        Akamichi, Uruma

      • Risa Nakayama

        wow that’s close. i will see if there’s any way. in my neighborhood, there was also a guy who washed his dog with shampoo in a small pretty pond-ish place where kids swim and play. my dad pointed out to the guy that kids play there, and the guy said “it’s alright” everybody should know there are those with no morality, care for others, or even commonsense, no matter what nationality they have. i do think some okinawans disregard that fact.

      • jwtn

        It honestly doesn’t matter will the marines are. The marines are not designed to be a deterrence force, they lack the capability. maybe its time to respect the okinawans for the first time in 70 years and just leave. where else in the world would this same situation be acceptable. No where

      • Apophis2036

        The US military is in Okinawa at the invitation of the Japanese government under the US-Japan Security Treaty. Prime Minister Abe and his LDP party won a landslide victory in the last election which shows the Japanese people’s support of the Abe politics. The 100 or less protesters who show up daily at Henoko do not represent the Okinawan people as can be seen by the recent reelection of the pro-Abe mayor in Ginowan City.

      • Riquez

        The Okinawans are pushed around by the mainland government & the US and their views ignored & bulldozed over.

  • Conrad Brean

    Lets face it Japan belongs to the US. They can do anything they want with it and the Japanese kowtow. And the chauvinism that the US applies to the Japanese, the Japanese extend to the poor folks of Okinawa

    • Jeffery Lebowski

      Right or wrong, that about wraps it up.

    • jwtn

      So where going back to the, “we won the war, the land was bought for and paid for with American blood.” Don’t worry that has always been the reason.

      • Conrad Brean

        Please read what I wrote. The US dictates Japanese foreign policy…since WWII. Nuclear energy was essentially instrumentalised through the CIA and every politician since WII has been decided by the US. Hashimoto was ousted because he wanted to push the envelope…

      • jwtn

        So your saying it is perfectly acceptable to forcibly impose excessive burdens upon a unwilling host who has never wanted to support the us military. Their not japanese, why is this acceptable in the first place.

      • Conrad Brean

        It is not acceptable. However, ethics and morality do not figure in hard politics. The US desires hegemony. And they screw up all the time like clock work.

    • jwtn

      So where going back to the, “we won the war, the land was bought for and paid for with American blood.” Don’t worry that has always been the reason.

  • Jeff Jones

    Militarism is a disease. Herbs are available.

  • aoriri

    I love Okinawa, the people are some of the most gracious and kind and not deserve to disrespect by either Mainland Japan or the US military!

  • aoriri

    I love Okinawa, the people are some of the most gracious and kind and not deserve to disrespect by either Mainland Japan or the US military!