• Kyodo

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The Okinawa Prefectural Government has approved the start of rock drilling off Henoko, part of land reclamation work on a replacement facility for a key U.S. military base in the prefecture.

The Defense Ministry can now legally dig out rocks and other sediment from the seabed and build protective banks and other facilities, so the operations of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan can eventually be relocated.

“It is an important step” toward moving the base from its current location in the crowded city of Ginowan, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters on Thursday in Tokyo.

The drilling project, covering around 172 hectares, will be completed by March 31, 2017, according to an application filed by the local bureau of the Defense Ministry on July 14.

Opponents such as Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine and local fishermen have protested the move, and expressed concern about water pollution and the impact on local fishing.

The Defense Ministry is under orders to suspend the construction project if water pollution occurs, and has been urged not to disturb local fisheries.

The prefectural government believes that preventive measures against possible water pollution have been taken, and that “the expected impact on local fishing grounds should be minimal.”

Earlier in August, Japan started a drilling survey at 16 seabed sites off the coast through Nov. 30 to inspect the strength and geographical conditions of the seabed.

The landfill work is now expected to start in 2015 or later, after a construction plan has been mapped out based on the survey, according to government officials.

Buoys and floats have been put in place to demarcate the restricted area, with local opponents demanding the survey be canceled.

“There appears to be no confusion at present and it (the boring survey) is progressing steadily while safety is ensured,” Senior Vice Defense Minister Ryota Takeda told reporters on Thursday after inspecting the area by helicopter.

While the Futenma relocation plan between Japan and the United States was first agreed in 1996, it has encountered strong local opposition as well as political wrangling.

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the central government’s application for the land reclamation in December, urging the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to end Futenma operations within five years.

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