• Kyodo

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A 24-year-old plan to build a controversial airport on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture took a step forward Saturday, despite lingering concerns that the project could jeopardize the island’s rich natural environment, including a world-famous coral reef.

An advisory panel to Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Saturday proposed a hilly area around Mount Karadake on the eastern part of the island as the site for the airport, which is estimated to cost 44 billion yen.

Inamine will soon make a final decision based on the panel’s choice. He said he was “very happy” about the decision.

The prefecture initially floated the airport plan in 1976 citing increased demand for air travel to the island.

But its original plan to build the airport on reclaimed land met with fierce opposition from local residents and environmentalists because of anticipated damage to a vast expanse of coral reef in the Shiraho sea area.

The issue drew attention even outside of Japan as international environmentalist groups, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, joined the campaign to protect the coral reef.

In addition to the environmental issue, the project was also hampered by allegations of dubious transactions on land at the proposed site as well as complaints from some landowners.

Proponents of the airport plan, alarmed by the recent moves by the Transport Ministry to review long-shelved public works projects, accelerated efforts for its realization last year, with the prefecture launching a panel in June to decide on a candidate site.

The governor’s panel has examined four candidate sites on the island, and on Saturday a majority of the 35 panel members backed the Karadake area.

A panel member from an environment protection group expressed fears that construction will adversely affect the coral reefs, and protested against making a hasty decision on a controversial project that has been pending for more than two decades.

But a majority of panel members want an early start to building the airport anyway.

The Shiraho coral reef lies along the Karadake area. The huge amount of red dirt that would be dug out from the airport site could spill into the sea and endanger the coral reef, warns Takashi Kobayashi, a local resident and member of the WWF who took part in the panel’s debate.

“It’s a risky decision that could spoil a natural treasure that has worldwide significance,” says Kobayashi. Experts also cite possible danger to other marine life.

The panel cited measures to protect the environment as a condition for the airport project. Ishigaki Mayor Nagateru Ohama said, “I will make further efforts for an early start of the project, while ensuring that the nature of Shiraho will never be affected.”

But no specific measures were spelled out by the panel, which left details open for future discussions.

The new airport will feature a 2,000-meter runway to enable use by medium-size jet aircraft, scaled down from an initially-planned 2,500-meter runway. The island, about 400 km southwest of Okinawa Island, currently has a 1,500-meter runway airport.

Even after an official decision on the project, completion of the airport is likely to be at least several years ahead because environmental assessment of the planned site alone is believed to take about three years.

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