TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — When Eiko Kotani, 47, moved with her husband to the suburbs of Tokorozawa’s Shimotomi district 19 years ago, she thought the forest sprawling behind their new home would make a perfect playground for their young son and future children. It did, at least for a while.

“The kids enjoyed climbing trees, picking mushrooms and having barbecued foods,” Kotani recalls. “We also made fires, grilling sweet potatoes and chestnuts just about every evening in the fall and winter.”

But things changed in February 1991, when ash started piling up on the windshield of the family car, and black smoke and a sharp odor began to foul the forest, locally known as “Kunugi-yama” (“Oak Hill”).

“When I first saw flames going up, I thought it was a grass fire,” Kotani says. She called the fire department, only to learn that demolition firms were burning materials from dismantled homes in open fields only 100 meters away from her family’s home.

Ever since, Kotani and her neighbors have repeatedly called fire officials and police to complain of the resulting air pollution, as well as written to government officials requesting that the practice be stopped. But local government agencies were slow to respond, Kotani says. This was partly because Kunugi-yama borders four municipalities in Saitama Prefecture — the cities of Tokorozawa, Sayama and Kawagoe, and the town of Miyoshi — with no one government in charge. Kotani visited the offices of each.

Prefectural officials say they have “instructed” the firms to install incinerators, instead of burning waste on open land, to reduce environmental and health damages. But the government has no legal power to ban waste disposal businesses from the land, they say.

The Waste Disposal Law states that industrial waste companies must be authorized by the prefectural government and meet certain technical and safety standards. But the law is only applied to incinerators with a daily burning capacity of 5 tons or more. Waste companies with incinerators smaller than that can start up just by registering themselves.

Sachiyo Yamada, a member of the Tokorozawa Municipal Assembly who has worked on the issue, says many waste disposal facilities have taken advantage of the law’s loophole by using incinerators slightly smaller than the 5-ton threshold. About half of the 15 incinerators in Kunugi-yama are built by industrial waste firms. The others are built on so-called material storage sites, where demolition firms burn waste housing materials, including scrap wood. Because of their size, all are exempt from the authorization procedure, prefectural officials say.

For years, Kotani was alone in her fight. But many other local residents began to take notice of the problem as it became evident that dioxin, a highly toxic gas, was being generated in the area and traveling to other parts of the city. In December 1995, Setsunan University Professor Hideaki Miyata announced the results of a survey of the area’s soil and ash from waste incinerators. They showed that soil from the Kunugi-yama area had an extremely high concentration of dioxin analogues — about 10 to 15 times higher than Japan’s average.

Experts say most of the dioxin, which is undetectable by sight or smell, is generated when vinyl chloride is burned. Dioxin can cause cancer, birth defects and sterility, they say.

In the survey, high levels of dioxin were also observed in soil from other parts of the city, indicating it had been carried by the wind. The findings sent the Tokorozawa Municipal Assembly into a frenzy, according to Yamada. They also sparked the formation of more than a dozen citizens’ groups. These further raised awareness among nearby residents through regular study meetings and demanded more intervention from the government.

Kotani says she feels her message has finally reached the central government. But the cleanness of the local air she and her family members had once cherished is now gone, and it does not look like it will be back soon. She says rabbits and birds have disappeared from the woods. Trees have withered and fallen on the ground.

On a recent visit, concrete blocks, ceramic tiles, plastic pipes and twisted iron bars littered the surface of roads, left behind by the waste disposal firms when the roads were widened to allow their trucks passage. A mound of ash — probably containing high levels of dioxin — was dumped in another part of the woods.

Since the heavy criticism of waste incineration, many facilities seem to be operating more at night than during the day, Kotani suspects. “We are still protected from the toxin because the forest has absorbed so much of it,” she says. “If the forest dies, so will we. We must get the forest back to the way it was.”

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