Proper environmental survey must be conducted at proposed Okinawa U.S. base site

Dear Members of the United States Congress,

With the Okinawan gubernatorial election days away, the U.S. and Japanese governments’ plan to construct a U.S. military air base in Henoko, Okinawa, is about to reach a critical point.

Among the leading candidates for governor, Takeshi Onaga, the former mayor of Naha, has promised to do everything in his power to stop the plan, which involves relocating U.S. Marine facilities currently at Futenma in the island’s southwest to Henoko, on the outskirts of Nago city in the northeast. Hirokazu Nakaima, the incumbent governor, has expressed his willingness to go along with the project.

Significantly, while the Abe and Obama administrations are pushing forward with the plan, recent public opinion polls show that as many as 80 percent of Okinawans oppose the construction. Whoever wins the election, the clash between Okinawa and the two national governments can only intensify.

How, then, should this 17-year-old saga be resolved? I suggest that the U.S. Congress should get more involved in ensuring the U.S. government does not shirk its environmental responsibilities.

The area of Henoko and, in particular, Oura Bay is of paramount environmental importance, with many species there protected by domestic and international laws and regulations. Two administrative processes, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the land reclamation permit approval, were completed as required by law before the start of drilling surveys in July. The Okinawa Defense Bureau conducted the former and the Okinawa prefectural government was in charge of the latter. Both processes concluded that the construction and operation of the base would have no significant impact on the environment.

However, as pointed out in a report by the Congressional Research Service titled “The U.S. Military Presence in Okinawa and the Futenma Base Controversy,” these processes have been severely criticized. Critics argue that the government’s EIA did not accurately assess the value and vulnerability of the environment, and that it grossly underestimated the environmental effects of the base. Yasuo Shimazu, a leading expert on EIAs and former chair of the Japan Society for Impact Assessment, denounced the government EIA as the worst he had seen in the history of such reports in Japan.

Nakaima himself disputed the validity of the EIA. Commenting on the report in 2012, he stated, “Even with the conservation measures provided in the EIA, the conservation of the livelihood of the local people and of the environment in the area affected is impossible.”

Last December, however, as alluded to in the CRS report, the central government placed “heavy pressure” on Nakaima to approve the land reclamation. Or more precisely, three middle-rank prefectural officials, under pressure from Nakaima and the central government, undertook the task of examining the reclamation application and approved the permit.

These officials have since admitted that they have no expert knowledge or experience regarding the conservation of coral and the endangered dugong, nor about the dangers associated with military operations and invasive alien species. Such expert knowledge and experience should have been an indispensable element in their decision-making. They also admitted that they did not consult with other experts in coming to the decision to approve the permit.

It appears on the surface as if the U.S. government went along with the conclusions of the Japanese EIA, welcomed Nakaima’s approval and allowed the Okinawa Defense Bureau to begin drilling. However, according to the “U.S. Marine Corps Recommended Findings” released by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in April, the department participated in the Japanese EIA process, though in a limited capacity. The DoD also conducted its own evaluation of impacts of the base on the dugong, an endangered marine mammal that inhabits Henoko and Oura Bay.

This all came about due to a ruling in 2008 by the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The court ruled in favor of Okinawan, Japanese and U.S. plaintiffs who sued the DoD for failing to comply with the National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA) in drawing up the Henoko plan. The court ordered the DoD to comply with the law by “taking into account” the effects of the base on the dugong, which it called a “natural monument” of Japan.

It is troubling not only that the DoD reached the same conclusions as the Japanese EIA, but also that the DoD did not notify the plaintiffs, let alone the Okinawan public, that it was conducting the court-ordered process. Nor has the DoD made public the documents produced in the process, thus preventing any third party from examining the DoD’s environmental analysis and evaluation. In fact, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency that indicated its intention “to review and comment on the DoD’s analysis” in its 2009 report to the Congress, has not been able to because it has been unable to get hold of the documents.

The otherwise standard procedures of NHPA compliance that apply in the U.S. did not take place in Okinawa. Instead, everything was done in secret, to the extent that the CRS was not even aware that the procedures had taken place at all.

Now is the time for the U.S. Congress to get more involved. To this end, I request that the following four recommendations be acted upon in the name of Congress:

1) The DoD must, in an appropriate and sufficient way, “take into account” the environmental effects of the Henoko construction process, as ordered by the U.S. District Court, in line with the NHPA.

2) The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission should review and comment on the DoD’s analysis.

3) Congressional hearings must be held regarding environmental issues in the Henoko plan.

4) Pending satisfactory resolution of the above three matters, the U.S. government is urged to call upon the Japanese government to suspend base construction works at Henoko.


Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa

A longer version of this letter, which was sent to the U.S. Congress, was published by Japan Focus. Submissions and comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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