|

Pentagon blocks report on ‘toxic contamination’ at base outside Okinawa capital

by Jon Mitchell

The U.S. military is refusing to release a report detailing environmental contamination at Camp Kinser, a 2.7-sq.-km U.S. Marine Corps supply base near Okinawa’s capital, Naha, that is scheduled for return to civilian use.

Since April 2014, U.S. Pacific Command has repeatedly stonewalled a Freedom of Information Act request for the 1993 report, titled “USFJ Talking Paper on Possible Toxic Contamination at Camp Kinser, Okinawa.” Initially, in October 2014, the U.S. authorities acknowledged they possessed the report but refused to release it, citing, among other reasons, a need “to protect against public confusion.” Following an FOIA appeal and further demands for the document, officials appeared to backtrack in August by suggesting that they did not have the report and they required more time to locate it.

Although the full text of the discussion paper remains under wraps, excerpts have been previously quoted in documents prepared for the U.S. military that are publicly available. These excerpts suggest extensive pollution on Camp Kinser.

One section cites “evidence of environmental contamination by heavy metals and pesticides caused by past hazardous material storage practices.” Another part reveals the burial of more than 12.5 tons of toxic ferric chloride on the base and the dumping of pesticides in a landfill at Camp Hansen, central Okinawa.

The report describes Camp Kinser — which was formerly called the Machinato or Makiminato Service Area — as a key storage site for retrograde chemicals from the Vietnam War including “insecticides, rodenticides, herbicides, inorganic and organic acids, alkalis, inorganic salts, organic solvents, and vapor degreasers.”

At the time of publication, U.S. Forces Japan had not responded to requests for comment on its reluctance to release the full discussion paper.

However, Manabu Sato, a professor of political science at Okinawa International University, suggested the motivation might relate to future plans for the base.

“The return of Camp Kinser is one of the most celebrated features of the so-called ‘reduction of the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa.’ Thus the Pentagon wants to conceal the reality of contamination that would damage the political value of its return,” he told The Japan Times.

Under a 2013 Japan-U.S. agreement to consolidate the Pentagon presence on Okinawa, Camp Kinser is supposed to be returned to civilian control in a three-phase plan expected to be completed in “2025 or later.” A 1-hectare section of the base consisting of an access road was returned in 2013; another 2-hectare parcel was scheduled to be returned in 2014, but that handover has not yet taken place.

Due to Camp Kinser’s proximity to Naha, the land is considered prime real estate for future development — particularly for the island’s tourist industry. Okinawa’s economy used to be dependent on the U.S. military; however, today, according to prefecture statistics, the Pentagon presence contributes only about 5 percent to the local economy. Moreover, in recent years, contamination on former military land has hampered plans for its smooth transition to civilian control.

Camp Kinser is one of the USMC’s largest supply bases on Okinawa, stockpiling ammunition, fuel and vehicles. It also hosts an elementary school and accommodation for service members and their families; approximately 1,000 base employees work on the installation. Some 114,000 people live in the neighboring city of Urasoe.

A series of incidents have sparked fears among local residents about environmental pollution at Camp Kinser. In 2009, six Japanese workers fell ill following exposure to an unknown substance at a warehouse on the base. In 2013, mongooses caught near the installation showed high levels of poisonous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), while earlier this month, scientists from Meio University and Ehime University reported that habu snakes in the vicinity of Camp Kinser were also found to contain elevated concentrations of PCBs and the banned insecticide DDT.

In response to the habu report, the mayor of Urasoe, Tetsuji Matsumoto, ordered tests on local water and announced he would ask Tokyo to conduct an investigation.

Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, Washington is not obliged to allow Japanese officials to inspect its military bases for contamination — nor is it responsible for the cleanup of polluted former base land.

Currently the U.S. and Japan are finalizing an environmental stewardship agreement to supplement SOFA that is expected to allow local officials access to bases in the event of chemical spills or to conduct surveys on land scheduled for imminent return.

Jon Mitchell received the inaugural Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Freedom of the Press Award for Lifetime Achievement earlier this year for his investigations into U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and other base-related problems. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp