A newly signed agreement between Tokyo and Washington allowing Japanese officials access to U.S. military bases in Japan to conduct environmental surveys has flaws, experts said, questioning its effectiveness due to vague wording in the bilateral documents.

The accord, signed between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Monday in Washington, supplements the existing Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement governing the use of U.S. bases in Japan.

Hiromori Maedomari, a professor at Okinawa International University who has authored a number of books on the SOFA, said Tuesday the accord was only half a step forward.

Maedomari noted the wording in the accord did not guarantee Japanese officials access to U.S. military facilities to conduct surveys in case of environmental incidents.

A document stipulating procedures for access to the U.S. military bases says the Japanese government or local municipalities “may request” permission from the U.S. side to conduct surveys.

The document goes on to say the U.S. will “give all due consideration to the request” and “respond as promptly as practicable.” It adds the Japanese side “may also request to take samples” in relation to on-the-spot surveys.

“If the U.S. did not accept the request, it would be impossible for the Japanese side to carry out the survey,” Maedomari said. “It’s totally up to the U.S. side whether the request would be accepted,” which would make the situation no different to before the new agreement.

Maedomari, a former chief editorial writer for the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper in Okinawa, said there were cases in Okinawa where it took a long time for local municipalities to be allowed to enter the U.S. military facilities for surveys when accidents occurred.

In a 2013 U.S. military helicopter crash near a dam in Camp Hansen in Ginoza, local officials, who suspected environmental contamination, received samples half a year later and entered the area one year after they submitted their requests.

Masami Kawamura, director of Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, has been leading efforts to ensure Tokyo and Washington are more transparent about the environmental impact of U.S. bases on Okinawa Island.

“The new pact has been described as a way to reduce Okinawa’s military burden but it will do nothing to solve environmental problems. The wording is vague and it still gives the U.S. strong discretionary powers. USFJ (U.S. Forces Japan) and Tokyo ought to prioritize the rights of the people affected by contamination,” she said.

Professor Maedomari said the pact wouldn’t contribute to reducing the base-hosting burden unless it was actually proven to work.

“Unfortunately, empty promises won’t lead to easing those burdens,” he said.

To give teeth to the agreement, Maedomari stressed that provisions placing obligation on the U.S. were necessary.

“Without provisions requiring the U.S. side to comply with the request promptly, the pact won’t have effectiveness,” Maedomari said. He also suggested establishing a punitive clause for the U.S. side in the event that it caused a serious environmental spill. It is important for Japan to establish measures now to prevent environmental issues, Maedomari said.

The Japanese government should demand that the U.S. “disclose information or report in advance regarding the use of military facilities and its assets that could pose a danger to the environment,” he noted, adding that such a clause was lacking in the agreement.

Regarding the timing of environmental surveys for land expected to be returned to Japan, which was stipulated as “no more than 150 working days prior to the return date,” Maedomari said such surveys should be carried out immediately after Tokyo and Washington agreed on a return.

As it stood, the time frame was too short for the local government to address the environmental issues and to come up with plans for its use, Maedomari said.

Freelance journalist Jon Mitchell contributed to this report

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