Island’s environment recovering from illegal waste; residents try to follow suit

by Tsukasa Kamata


A huge accumulation of industrial waste, including metal, oil and shredded construction material illegally dumped between 1978 and 1990, still occupies nearly 80,000 sq. meters of the 15-sq.-km island of Teshima in the scenic Seto Inland Sea.

Even so, there are signs that the ecosystems damaged by the pollution are being revived. Cuttlefish, sea cactus, grass wrack, crabs and other tiny organisms have recently begun to reappear on the once foul-smelling black sludge mud next to the beach, where the roughly 500,000 tons of harmful waste are buried.

Teshima was the site of one of Japan’s worst cases of illegal dumping of industrial waste. Seven years after a settlement was reached between residents and Kagawa prefectural authorities, about one-third of the waste has been removed.

The islanders are now trying to revive their community. Ritsuko Yamugi, a 60-year-old housewife, began growing strawberries in greenhouses together with her husband. The strawberries are put on sale at well-known fruit shops in Tokyo.

But Yamugi and the five other strawberry growers refrain from referring to them as “made in Teshima.”

“Between promontories, about 400 meters off the seashore, had been my yellowtail fish farm,” activist Shozo Aki, 56, standing on the disposal site beach, said, pointing out to sea in the islet town of Tonosho.

Aki started a young yellowtail project in 1975 when he had returned to the island after graduating from a university. But he was forced to close down the fish farm when a huge amount of filthy water laced with deadly dioxin leeched from the beach into the sea in 1990.

Aki, at the time one of the younger residents of the island, went on to lead a grassroots campaign against the industrial waste disposal businesses for two decades. He is currently a board member of the Teshima residents’ council on industrial waste.

In June 2000, the residents reconciled with the Kagawa Prefectural Government on a plan to remove all the waste from the islet and render it harmless on the neighboring island of Naoshima. The prefectural authorities admitted their fault in letting the now-defunct disposal firm Teshima Sogo Kanko Kaihatsu Co. run the illegal dumps.

About one-third of the waste has been removed since April 2003, and the remainder is covered by silver-colored impermeable liners to prevent the filthy water from leeching out due to rainfall.

The cost for the removal and recycling work on Teshima and Naoshima is estimated at roughly 50 billion yen. About 60 percent will be covered by funds from the central government based on special legislation effective for 10 years from fiscal 2003.

Much attention now is on how to revive the isle’s economy, where residents aged 65 or older account for more than 40 percent of its 1,100 people.

“It took four years to remove one-third,” said Shigeharu Nakaji, 50, director of the Environmental Monitoring Laboratory in Osaka. “This shows it will take at least eight years to dispose of the remaining two-thirds. It is not clear whether the disposal program will be completed in a decade as claimed by Kagawa Prefecture.”

Nakaji is part of a group of people, including lawyers, environmentalists and academic researchers, who have supported Teshima’s fight against the illegal dumping.

The nationwide problem of illegal dumping of industrial waste remains unabated even after Teshima and other high-profile cases prompted the government to tighten penalties against offenders.

In fiscal 2005, the government exposed 558 new cases in which an aggregate 170,000 tons of industrial waste were found to have been dumped. At the end of the fiscal year, Japan had 15.67 million tons of illegally dumped waste lying on its soil — roughly 30 times the amount dumped on Teshima, according to the Environment Ministry.