Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Wednesday officially selected a hilly area around Mount Karadake in the eastern part of ecologically sensitive Ishigaki Island for the construction of a new airport.
While the government hopes to apply for Transport Ministry approval in fiscal 2002 and begin construction in fiscal 2003, several hurdles remain before the already 24-year-old plans can be acted upon.
Most of those are environmental.
The island, which lies more than 400 km southwest of Okinawa’s main island, is part of the Yaeyama chain of islets, and the area near the proposed site is internationally known for its coral reefs, including the famous Shiraho Reef.
Environmentalists have warned that constructing an airport on the site — which was endorsed by an advisory panel earlier this month — would cause soil to drain into the sea, harming the pristine waters and possibly destroying the nearby coral reefs.
The World Wide Fund for Nature Japan has asked the prefecture to carry out 10 environment-protection measures concerning the plan, including a rigorous environmental assessment.
It also wants the airport moved further inland to minimize damage to the reefs.
The Okinawa government is expected to set up a committee to discuss how to prevent soil drainage during construction, the officials said.
Inamine pledged at a news conference that the prefecture will take sufficient measures to preserve the local environment.
Another hurdle is gaining the consent of landowners, but the government hopes to solve that problem early next month when it explains the plan to them.
Despite campaigns to protect Shiraho Reef, a land transaction scandal and complaints from some landowners, Okinawa last year decided to move ahead with the project out of fear that a Transport Ministry policy review of planned public works projects could scuttle the idea completely.
Talk of a new airport first emerged in 1976 when Okinawa compiled a basic plan to build a second Ishigaki facility because of rising demand for flights to and from the island.
Built in 1952, the current airport has only a 1,500-meter runway and is not designed for jets. Located in an urban area, it also has become a source of noise pollution.
In 1979, the prefecture decided to build an airport with a 2,500-meter runway off the Shiraho coast, but in 1987 protests forced the government to shorten the planned runway by 500 meters.
Two years later, Okinawa changed the site to waters west of Mount Karadake.
All plans were stalled until last year when the advisory panel to the governor was launched. It inspected the Mount Karadake area and three other sites — Fusakino in southwestern Ishigaki, an area east of Mount Karadake and Miyara in southern Ishigaki.
But environmentalists said that serious damage to the island’s rich ecosystem would be inevitable if the airport is built at any of the proposed sites.
In March, a majority of the 35 advisory panel members backed the Mount Karadake site in a showdown vote on condition that adequate steps be taken to protect the environment, panel sources said.
Still, it is not yet clear whether construction can proceed.
The soil runoff expected from the construction is estimated at around 5 million cu. meters, which may seriously damage the reefs. And because the government is supposed to clear all environmental challenges before construction, some government officials have already expressed concern over a possible delay.
If the go-ahead ever does come, it is likely to be at least 10 years before the airport — which is expected to cost 44 billion yen — opens.
After three years of environmental assessments and other procedures, construction would last another six to seven years, the officials said.