The United States has proposed a major change in aircraft flight routes for the planned relocation base for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa that could worsen noise levels and pose risks to residential areas, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.
The proposal, presented during working-level talks Aug. 9 and 10, could trigger fresh opposition in Okinawa as it would allow U.S. aircraft to fly closer to onshore areas than Tokyo had earlier expected under visual flight rules using two runways in a V configuration to be built on the Henoko cape in Nago.
On Monday, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa asked U.S. Ambassador John Roos to maintain the previous flight routes, saying the new routes could provoke stronger opposition among people in Okinawa, but Roos rejected it, the sources said.
Kitazawa told Roos that a change in flight routes would require Tokyo to conduct another round of environmental assessment work, noting it has already spent three years on such work.
The government intends to work out final details of the new base after November’s gubernatorial election in Okinawa.
Japan and the U.S. agreed in May to relocate the Futenma air station within Okinawa, moving it from densely populated Ginowan to the less populated Henoko district.
A report on details of the relocation are to be compiled by experts from the two countries by the end of this month. It will include two choices for the design of the facility at the new base — building two runways in a V pattern or just a single runway.
However, the new U.S. proposal could worsen noise levels and risks, undermining the relocation plan itself regardless of the runway pattern.
The two countries are in the final stage of talks on whether to include the new proposal on flight routes in the report.
The May agreement states, “Both sides confirmed the intention to locate, configure and construct the replacement facility in such a manner as to ensure that environmental impact assessment procedures and construction of the replacement facility can be completed without significant delay.” It also confirms the intention to locate the replacement facility in Henoko and adjacent waters.
The United States has asked Japan not to reassess the alternative site’s environmental impact due to the proposal over the flight routes.
Both governments have maintained that U.S. military aircraft would avoid flying near residential areas and instead fly over the water when taking off and landing on the two runways under visual flight rules, which can apply only in fair weather situations where instrument approaches and departures are not necessary.
They also said aircraft would fly over a coastal residential area in Nago only during instrument flight rules.
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