In the weeks after March 11, 2011, what to do with the mountains of debris that had once been people’s homes and possessions before the quake and tsunami, and how to do it quickly, cheaply and safely, became the top priority of the cleanup effort in Tohoku.

In response, the Environment Ministry called on local governments across the nation to assist stricken parts of the northeast by accepting portions of the debris for incineration and burial.

But two years on, the amount of debris the government says needs to be moved out of the region for disposal has been revised to just one-sixth of the original estimate. Meanwhile, continuing concerns about radioactive contamination and transport costs have led some municipalities in central and western Japan to alter their plans to help.

According to the ministry’s latest status report, issued in late February, an estimated 619,000 tons of debris from Iwate and Miyagi, two of the prefectures worst affected by the disasters, still need to be removed from the disaster zone — 291,600 tons from the former and 327,400 tons from the latter. The initial projection tipped the scales at just over 4 million tons.

Most of what the ministry wants shipped for external disposal is burnable waste from Miyagi and wood from Iwate. The original plan set a March 2014 deadline for disposing of all the debris from the 3/11 disasters.

Although new incinerators were built in or close to hard-hit municipalities, a move that was welcomed because it created much-needed jobs and revenue, there were still limits to how much could be disposed of locally.

Thus, the central government issued a nationwide call for help to dispose of the waste. An initial budget of ¥350 billion was approved for the project in May 2011, and some 500 areas from Hokkaido to Okinawa expressed interest.

However, as the cleanup progressed, official forecasts of how much waste needed to be shipped kept changing. Upon closer examination, much of what was initially thought to be burnable waste turned out to be sand. Other debris ended up being washed out to sea.

The Environment Ministry’s explanation for the downward revision is that as the disposal drive progressed, local governments were able to gather more accurate information about the volume, and nature, of the debris they were dealing with, and amended their figures accordingly. Despite the dramatic drop, the ministry says it will continue asking municipalities outside Tohoku to accept debris so it can meet the March 2014 disposal deadline.

As of Feb. 22, municipal governments in Tokyo and 14 other prefectures, mostly in eastern or central Japan, had either received or planned to receive debris shipments. And of the 619,000 tons of waste from Miyagi and Iwate, only 41 percent had been shipped, disposed of or was in the process of being incinerated, the ministry said.

The government’s pleas for help were initially rejected for months.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government broke the impasse by offering to accept debris from Miyagi and Iwate in September 2011. The first shipment arrived that December, making the capital the first municipality outside Tohoku to enter the disposal fray.

As of last month, a total of 25,500 tons of debris had been accepted and was being disposed of in eight municpalities within Tokyo, including Hachioji, Machida, Hino, Tama, Yanagizumi, Sanjusanku and Nishtama. An additional 55,250 tons was accepted by four private firms in Tokyo. Of this amount, two have gotten rid of 25,050 tons, and the rest is currently being disposed of.

Others that accepted debris from the two prefectures included regional neighbors Yamagata, which took 94,370 tons, Aomori, which accepted 18,410, and Ibaraki, which received 14,760. Fukushima, which had to concurrently deal with the nuclear crisis, agreed to incinerate 13,120 tons of wooden waste, even though it was having difficulty getting help with its own.

Despite tests held before transport, the decision to ship debris outside the disaster zone wasn’t universally welcomed because of widespread fears that much of it was radioactive. Concerns were also raised that taxpayers’ money set aside for the project could be better used locally.

This criticism was leveled not only by residents outside Tohoku, but by prominent politicians in the hardest-hit prefectures.

“There was no need to spend lots of money to ship the debris far away. Nor is it any wonder that residents in places that accepted it worry about radiation contamination,” said Mitsuya Aizawa, the longest serving member in the Miyagi Prefectural Assembly. “This was a policy decided in top-down fashion by the central government, and Miyagi Prefecture, in truth, wanted it stopped as well.”

To deal with the debris on a local level, the Miyagi Prefectural Assembly unanimously agreed to support a plan that first separates it into recyclable and burnable waste, a process currently under way. The burnable waste would then be incinerated in Miyagi and used as landfill along the coast, with trees and greenery eventually planted on top.

Although the Democratic Party of Japan-led government rejected the idea at the time, Aizawa said the new Liberal Democratic Party administration supports it, and that revisions to address environmental concerns could help the landfill concept move forward.

Nationwide, assistance was so hard to come by that the Environment Ministry in March 2012 offered to pay all expenses incurred by disposal work for any municipality that took in Iwate and Miyagi debris, including radiation tests to ease local contamination fears. The offer even included “future financial aid” if expansion or construction of disposal facilities became necessary.

Accepting debris proved particularly controversial out west in Kitakyushu and Osaka.

Last September, the Kitakyushu Municipal Government agreed to take up to 62,500 tons of debris from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, for incineration by March 2014. Kitakyushu Mayor Kenji Kitahashi said that unless the city accepted the debris, the disaster areas wouldn’t be able to recover. Concerns were raised within and outside the municipality, though, over the costs of shipping in waste from more than 1,400 km away.

“When we signed the contract, Miyagi Prefecture said the transport costs would be about ¥50,000 per ton, but as we’re still in the process of incinerating the waste, we don’t have the final figures,” said Yoshihiro Mori, an official in Kitakyushu’s environment bureau.

In addition, members of the Kitakyushu Municipal Assembly claimed that the actual disposal process would cost an additional ¥27,000 per ton, which led to initial estimates of ¥77,000 per ton.

However, a shipment of 80 tons that arrived last May for trial incineration ended up costing ¥14 million, or ¥175,000 per ton — more than double the original projection. When the figures became public, local opposition swelled and Kitakyushu eventually halted the program.

As of February, the city had burned about 15,500 of the 23,000 tons of waste it promised to handle by the March 31 end of fiscal 2012. Mori said there are no plans to accept any more in the next fiscal year.

In the case of Osaka, the prefectural government agreed last year to take 36,000 tons of tsunami debris from Iwate. The plan called for incinerating 6,000 tons at a municipal-run plant by the end of the month, and another 30,000 by March 2014.

The move was strongly supported by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, but opposition rose quickly, once more over costs and radiation fears, prompting a series of confrontations with the municipal and prefectural authorities late last year. Petitions and a lawsuit against the prefectural and city governments followed, and LDP members in the city’s assembly also spoke out against burning the debris.

In late February, a group of Kansai area citizens and several environmental experts called on Osaka to immediately halt incineration of debris from Iwate. The prefectural and municipal assemblies are currently debating whether to accept the remaining 30,000 tons they contracted for.

“In Shiga Prefecture, local residents demonstrated against a proposal to accept the waste, forcing the prefectural government to cancel its plans. There’s growing opposition in Osaka as well,” said Akio Hata, former president of the Japan Environmental Studies Association.

“But Hashimoto is forcing us to accept the debris either out of pride, or due to his involvement with the interests of the general contractors connected to the disposal process,” he said.

After the March 2011 quake and tsunami, and amid the ensuing nuclear crisis, one of the words heard most often in describing Japan’s response to the triple catastrophe was “kizuna,” or “ties,” the implication being that community bonds meant that everyone had to pitch in and help in any way they could.

Yuko Suzuki, one of those involved in the movement to oppose accepting tsunami debris, said that while there is a general tendency not to disagree with plans to accept waste from Tohoku out of respect for the concept of kizuna, many question the wisdom of actually doing so.

“People understand the dangers of spreading radioactive debris all over Japan,” Suzuki said.

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