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Staff writer

OSAKA — Universal Studios Japan, a franchise of the American theme park scheduled to open here in 2001, is facing an unexpected environmental controversy that could derail current plans.

Environmental tests were ordered by the city of Osaka following revelations in July that nearly 700,000 tons of mud mixed with PCBs and other carcinogens had been buried by Sumitomo Metal Industries over a 25-year period on a portion of the site for the park.

The tests will be concluded by the end of this month, city officials said.

Universal Studios Japan has been singled out by local officials as one of the keys to Osaka’s redevelopment and officials are worried that a major cleanup operation could delay the opening. The 54-hectare park will include rides and attractions based on movies such as “Jurassic Park.”

The scale of the waste problem first became public in June, when a standard environmental impact study was begun on the site, which sits on the edge of Osaka Bay near Maishima Island.

The area where the waste was discovered is a 7.2-hectare section of the southern part of the site, which is owned by Sumitomo. It was originally set up as an industrial waste disposal area in 1965, before the enactment of strict environmental legislation, and was closed in 1989.

Several years later, it was reopened as a dumping ground for leftover construction materials.

In 1986, the city learned that Sumitomo had dumped 400 tons of oily mud and 8 tons of lead at the site.

Sumitomo was issued a warning and ordered to clean up the waste, but part of it had already seeped into the ground.

It is unclear whether the mud was removed, because Sumitomo officials claim their records do not go back that far.

In 1989, Osaka officials took water samples and conducted other tests on the site and found PCBs and other toxins.

The data also revealed that the amount of lead was nearly four times higher than the allowable standard.

Sumitomo said it had no explanation for the presence of PCBs in the test samples.

The current tests are being carried out by Sumitomo and the results are being analyzed by the city’s environmental research bureau.

“We are trying to determine if 24 substances, including PCBs and other carcinogens, are present,” a spokesman from the city environmental bureau said.

Under current environmental guidelines, which were revised in the early 1970s, no PCBs may be present in a test sample.

The revelation of such a large amount of toxic waste has reportedly come as a surprise to both Universal Studios Japan Co. and U.S. officials at Universal Studios Recreation Group in California, which owns the park.

According to Jim Yeager, a spokesman for the group, the problem was first reported to the company several weeks ago.

U.S. officials of the group had repeatedly been assured by their Japanese counterparts that there were no problems, and Yeager said he expects any that appear to be handled by Sumitomo.

“We’ve been assured by the Japanese side that the owner of the land, Sumitomo Metal Industries, will assume responsibility for the cleanup, should one become necessary,” Yeager said.

His comments were echoed by Toshio Takahashi, a USJ official. Takahashi added that there is ample time for a cleanup operation because construction of the theme park is not due to begin until autumn 1998.

“I don’t think the 2001 opening will have to be delayed,” he said.

In addition, Yeager said it is too early to speculate on major changes to the current plans, while Takahashi said no changes are planned for the moment.

But city officials are worried that a major environmental problem, or the perception of one, could force Universal Studios to rethink its commitment to Osaka.

“Universal Studios is very concerned about their image, especially as this is their first overseas venture,” said one official, who declined to be named.

“If the problem is severe and if it leads to other discoveries of environmental problems, Universal Studios would face a lot of pressure to rethink their commitment to Osaka,” the official said.

USJ says it is taking a wait-and-see attitude. “We’ll develop a proper strategy after we know the extent of the problem, but we have no intention of abandoning Osaka,” Takahashi said.

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