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One of Japan’s largest pollution suits ended Thursday when about 400 Kawasaki residents signed an agreement to drop all claims, including for compensation, in exchange for a vow from the state and the Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. to “seriously work” on improving air quality along highways.

The plaintiffs said they agreed to accept the Tokyo High Court-mediated settlement of their 17-year legal battle because it clearly states that air pollution is “an ongoing problem” in Kawasaki and that such pollution has been caused not only by factory emissions in the industrial city but also by car exhaust.

The plaintiffs claimed their illnesses, including asthma and other respiratory disorders, were caused by auto emissions as well as by industries.

The settlement document says car emissions adversely affected “the living conditions” of people living near the expressway. It avoided use of “health” but in effect recognized the causal relationship, pleasing both the plaintiffs and the state.

The government and the semigovernmental expressway corporation refused to recognize the relationship between car exhaust and health, thus, the agreement does not require an apology or compensation from the defendants. However, the state, in exchange, pledged 400 billion yen to improve Kawasaki’s traffic environment.

It is the second such settlement among several air pollution suits filed against the state following a court-mediated settlement won by a group of residents of Osaka’s Nishi-Yodogawa Ward in July.

The Kawasaki plaintiffs called the settlement ground-breaking, reckoning it will realize their hopes to live in a clean environment in the future.

“I am happy that we settled the lawsuit,” said Yoshio Miyashita, 83, head of the plaintiff group. “But considering that more than 160 plaintiffs died during the 17-year court battle, we should have settled it earlier.”

Mitsuo Kato, head of the plaintiffs’ legal team, said the settlement is a new start for the plaintiffs and their supporters.

“We have to continue watching whether the government follows through on its pledge and creates a better environment in Kawasaki,” the lawyer told reporters.

“We are delighted that we settled the lawsuit under the agreement,” Yoshi Hirose, chief of the Environment Agency’s Air Quality Bureau, said in a written statement. “The agency will address the issue all the more to achieve the environmental standard in the Kawasaki area.”

Tomomitsu Fujii, head of the Construction Ministry’s Kanto Regional Construction Bureau, said the ministry will deal with the issue “in a sincere manner” through cooperation with the state, the city of Kawasaki and the expressway corporation.

Although the agreement does not admit to a relationship between auto emissions and health problems, its preamble states that air pollution caused by floating particles and nitrogen dioxide, which exceeds environmental limits, is affecting the environment of Kawasaki’s residential area.

The preamble also said last August’s ruling by the Yokohama District Court, which ordered the government and the public expressway firm to pay compensation, was a warning to the state.

According to the settlement, the government will act to improve the traffic environment and take steps to measure the concentration in the air of microparticles, which are considered harmful to the human body.

The two sides also agreed to establish a council to remain in contact, it says.

Half of the plaintiffs are officially recognized victims of so-called Kawasaki disease, which is caused by factory and auto emissions.

The Kawasaki lawsuits were filed in four stages between 1982 and 1988 against the government and the highway operator because of their responsibility for roads, and against 14 manufacturers with factories in the area.

In the first lawsuit, which was filed in 1982, the Kawasaki branch of the Yokohama District Court ordered the 14 companies in 1994 to pay 460 million yen in compensation but ruled that the state and highway operator were not liable.

In December 1996, the plaintiffs in all four stages reached a 3.1 billion yen out-of-court settlement with the 14 companies.

With the settlement of the Kawasaki suits, Japan’s four biggest air pollution disputes have come to an end. The other three involved air pollution in the city of Chiba, in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, and in Nishi-Yodogawa Ward, Osaka Prefecture.

The settlement is expected to affect similar, ongoing air pollution suits in Tokyo, Nagoya and Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

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