If the video were not so alarming, it would be humorous: Chaplinesque workers scurry to and fro while a claw-loader swivels and bends in every direction, making piles of waste disappear, covering others with paper and cardboard, and using a mattress clenched in its claw to sweep its work area clean.

Surveillance cameras show filters are often disengaged, except when government inspectors are due.

This time-elapsed footage, viewed at the Yokohama District Court last December, records operations at an industrial incinerator in Ayase, located adjacent to the U.S. Naval Air Facility at Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture. For almost a year, the court has been hearing arguments in a case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a provisional injunction to shut down the private incinerator, Envirotech.

All of the tidying up in the video is due to the imminent arrival of Kanagawa Prefecture officials for an inspection. When they arrive, they find a neat, quiet operation. Within minutes of their departure, however, trucks begin streaming onto the site, building up piles of waste. The claw-loader swings into action, scattering bags and loose materials, and feeding load after load into the “charging port” of the incinerator, racing, it seems, to make up for lost time. Chaos reigns. Business as usual.

Japan burns about 75 percent of its waste, more than any other nation. The result is levels of dioxin in air, soil and water that are the highest in the industrialized world, according to a 1999 dioxin inventory compiled by the United Nations Environment Program, using government-provided data.

Last May, Seikatsu Club, a Japanese citizens’ group, published its own research based on samples of black pine tree needles collected from various places across Japan. Black pine needles were used because dioxin levels in the needles fluctuate to reflect dioxin levels in ambient air.

According to the group, in areas where dioxin levels in needles exceed 5pg-TEQ (toxic equivalent)/g, ambient air levels of dioxin could be exceeding the government’s limit of 0.6pg-TEQ/m3. In Tokyo, the highest level was in Tachikawa (6.86pg). Locations in Chiba Prefecture reached 8.02pg and 7.82pg.

The real shocker came in Kanagawa Prefecture, where pine needles were collected inside the U.S. Naval Air Facility at Atsugi. Needles there registered the highest dioxin levels found anywhere in Japan, an astounding 50pg-TEQ/g. The U.S. government is certain Envirotech is responsible, and the evidence is convincing.

With filters in operation, incineration at Envirotech is cleaner but costs more.

Envirotech is nestled in a valley at the north end of the Ayase Industrial Park. Atsugi Naval Air Facility sits on a plateau to the north, a stone’s throw from the incinerator. Envirotech’s three smokestacks rise a mere 23 meters, effectively only 7 meters above ground level at Atsugi base. When the wind is from the south (from spring to autumn), smoke from the incinerators rolls across the base into apartments, schools and offices used by both Japanese and Americans.

Lt. Cmdr. Scott Bell, a U.S. Navy staff civil engineer, has spent more than three years studying the Envirotech incinerators and their impacts on Atsugi. In an affidavit submitted to the court, Bell states, “I have never been witness to a more poorly sited, constructed, or operated incineration facility [than] Envirotech.”

I recently spoke with Bell and Cmdr. Alexander Whitaker, a U.S. Navy lawyer stationed at Yokosuka. Although the court case is being handled by a Tokyo law firm, Bell and Whitaker have spent years observing Envirotech. Though they choose their words carefully when discussing the case, they are candid.

Bell estimates that 30-40 percent of Envirotech’s business is household waste from little 4-ton compactor trucks, like the blue ones cruising your neighborhood. The majority of its business is 10-ton loads and 200-liter barrels of liquid waste that come from industry. The variety of materials that the facility burns, he explains, are the reason why Envirotech’s emissions have been so toxic.

“[The owner, Tetsuro Murata] can burn general household waste, industrial waste, construction debris, rubble and wood, specially controlled industrial waste, which includes waste acids, waste oils, solvents, medical wastes, bloody garments,” Bell says. “Pretty much anything and everything that can be incinerated, he is licensed to incinerate.”

The U.S. complaint claims that the “defendant’s incinerator facilities are defective and obsolete.” I asked Bell if this is still true despite a new bag filter system installed in 1999.

“It still applies,” Bell confirmed. “Nothing has changed with his incineration equipment, he just replaced his automatic pollution controls.” Envirotech has already bypassed its filter system at least 20 times, he added, and while these are not intentional, they reflect problems with incinerator operations.

The navy has been videotaping Envirotech 24 hours a day for several years, and they know what it burns, how it burns and how much. Until the present suit was filed, however, the owner ignored his legal limits.

“Before September of ’98 he had a license for 30 tons per day, then it went up to 90 tons,” says Whitaker. “Even when his limit was 30 tons, however, he was burning around 200 tons per day.”

Nevertheless, Murata does have a permit and this has become his argument of last resort. “He claims that [the Kanagawa Prefectural Government] gives him a clean bill of health,” notes Whitaker. “We of course think that KPG’s clean bill of health, however it was obtained, is inaccurate. It’s a salient point that at the very same time he was churning out the highest levels of dioxin in Japan, KPG was giving him a totally clean bill of health.

“We have a different view of what that permit allows him to do,” notes Whitaker. “For him it’s a permit to ignore the people who live in the area, for him it’s a permit to make money at any cost.”

What is Whitaker hoping for?

“First, to clean up the air now,” he says, “and second, to have a state of affairs where conditions can never return to what they were. To have that, you would have to have a tall stack, good filtration, and you’d have to have an honest guy operating within his permit. We don’t have those things, and in the absence of those things I think a shutdown is the only option that is really viable.”