Since 2002, at least 270 environmental accidents on U.S. Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have contaminated land and local waterways but, until now, few of these incidents have been made public. Internal reports highlight serious flaws in training and suggest the lessons of past accidents have not been effectively implemented. Moreover, recent USMC guidelines order service members not to inform Japanese authorities of accidents deemed “politically sensitive,” raising concerns that many incidents may have gone intentionally unreported.
Catalogued in 403 pages of USMC handbooks and reports obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the accidents occurred on three of the USMC’s most important installations on Okinawa: Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Camp Hansen and Camp Schwab. The earliest report is dated June 2002 and the most recent is from June 2016.
Although the original FOIA request sought documents from 1995 to 2016, only three reports were released for the period between 1995 and 2005. Likewise, no reports for Camp Schwab were released for the years 2008 and 2010, nor were there any documents related to the crash of a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter on Camp Hansen in August 2013. At the time, the crash caused a public outcry because it occurred near a dam and dangerous levels of arsenic were later discovered in the vicinity.
According to the documents that were released, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma experienced 156 accidents between 2005 and 2016, resulting in the release of 14,003 liters of fuel (including jet fuel and diesel). Camp Hansen experienced 71 accidents between 2004 and 2016, including the leak of 2,596 liters of fuel and other substances such as 678 liters of antifreeze. Camp Schwab experienced 43 incidents between 2002 and 2016, involving 2,628 liters of fuel; in 2002, a 4,024-liter spill of mixed water/POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) was listed — one of the largest of the recorded accidents.
Of the total 270 accidents, it appears only six were reported to Japanese authorities — three of which were because the USMC required the help of local emergency services to clean up.
Environmental accident handbooks from 2013 and 2015 reveal USMC staff are under orders not to inform Japanese officials of “nonemergency and/or politically sensitive incidents.”
Only when an accident is deemed an emergency that poses a threat to people, drinking water or the environment off-base are marine staff permitted to notify Japanese authorities. The decision whether to classify an incident as “politically sensitive” is left in the hands of the USMC.
On Oct. 28, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said she would seek clarification of the policy from the U.S. military and would press them to report spills promptly to local authorities.
U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Maj. John Severns defended the policy.
“The decision to notify ODB (Okinawa Defense Bureau) is made by USFJ in accordance with Joint Committee agreements,” Severns wrote by email. “These agreements with the Government of Japan describe what situations require notification.”
Even when USMC decides to report incidents to the Japanese authorities, the FOIA-released documents reveal discrepancies about what Tokyo is told.
On June 15, an accident on Marine Corp Air Station Futenma resulted in the spill of 6,908 liters of aviation fuel.
The internal accident report suggests the accident was due to human error. However, Japanese authorities were informed it occurred because of a “valve misalignment.”
Moreover, although U.S. Forces Japan told Japanese authorities the spill had been dealt with “immediately,” the documents reveal it wasn’t fully under control until the following day.
U.S. Forces Japan did not inform the Japanese government of the scale of the incident, which ultimately necessitated the disposal of drums containing 11,208 liters of contaminated earth and 3,028 liters of contaminated water.
After the accident, an inside source slammed the safety standards of the USMC at Futenma. The expert explained that the cause of the accident was marines overriding a safety solenoid with a plastic tie (see photo).
“Such accidents are typical of the U.S. Marines. To put it bluntly, their work is lazy and they act stupidly,” he says.
The expert, who has been working for more than 10 years on U.S. installations in Japan, provided a 12-second video of the spill. Large volumes of fuel can be seen pouring out of a vent in the side of the grass-covered storage tank, pooling on the ground and running into a storm drain.
In March 2009, a similar accident had occurred at the same fuel tank. That incident involved fuel initially estimated by the marines at 3,028 liters but later revised down to 757 liters. The fact that the accident was allowed to happen highlights serious flaws in the training of marines, says the insider.
He also expressed grave concerns about what would happen if a fire broke out in MCAS Futenma’s fuel storage areas. The installation, he says, is not adequately equipped to deal with such a conflagration and the fire-fighting capabilities at MCAS Futenma are “very poor.”
Severns said he was unable to “respond to vague and unsourced comments.”
Although the June spill apparently did not escape the base, other incidents did.
Among these accidents that polluted off-base communities but went unreported to the Japanese government was a 946-liter diesel spill at Camp Schwab in September 2005, which was caused by contractors who accidentally severed a fuel line during construction work. The spill, unnoticed for four days, contaminated 120 meters of river with diesel, which, in some stretches, lay 5 centimeters deep upon the water’s surface.
On-base rivers flow into the nearby bay, an area categorized at the highest priority by Okinawa Prefecture in its list of places requiring environmental protection.
On Camp Hansen in November 2008, a marine hosed down a heavy equipment parking area and washed an estimated 4 liters of “unknown POLs” into drains, which then flowed “off base close to the Japanese elementary school.”
At the same camp in May 2010, 606 liters of anti-freeze spilled in a car park, resulting in an unknown amount flowing into the ocean.
Among the incidents at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, three spilled a total of 2,669 liters of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF). One incident in 2007 leaked 757 liters, of which 189 liters went off the base “into a short creek, then immediately into a cave.”
Hydraulic fluid spills within Futenma air base totaled 405 liters.
Both AFFF and hydraulic fluid can contain perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), a substance linked to cancers, damage to the immune system and harm to fetuses and infants.
Recent reports in the U.S. media have revealed the military may have been aware of the dangers of PFOS since 1979 and, in 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned it might be carcinogenic.
Tests for PFOS contamination have been conducted on military installations throughout the United States and at U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach in Germany.
In May, the EPA set its drinking water health advisory limit for PFOS at 70 nanograms per liter.
PFOS levels of 80 nanograms per liter were recorded at a spring near the Futenma facility in February. Near Kadena Air Base, local checks on the Dakujaku River have discovered levels of PFOS as high as 1,320 nanograms per liter and, at Chatan Water Purification Plant, 80 nanograms per liter.
U.S. Forces Japan says there are no plans for the military to conduct checks on Okinawa.
Articles published by The Japan Times in February and April revealed the damage that Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force installation in Asia, has been causing to the island’s drinking water supplies. There were at least 415 accidents between 1998 and 2015, only a fraction of which were reported to the Japanese government.
The latest release of papers related to Futenma, Schwab and Hansen suggest lax safety standards have caused many of the incidents.
In June 2002, a spill involving 4,024 liters of mixed POL and water occurred at Camp Schwab’s bilge water treatment facility. The follow-up investigation slammed supervising officers for failing to monitor the marines’ work and, after the accident was discovered, for pretending not to know what had happened. The marines, according to the report, were responsible for the “release of a known hazardous material onto areas that feed public waterways.”
Subsequent incidents suggest the USMC failed to improve training procedures at Camp Schwab.
An April 2009 report describes how a marine, untrained to operate the vehicle he was driving, caused an accident that spilled hydraulic fluid along 200 meters of on-base road and into the ocean. Members of the Okinawa Defense Bureau witnessed the accident but apparently did not notify the Japanese government.
More recently, 1,060 liters of fuel spilled within a storage area on Camp Schwab in May. Investigators linked the accident to environmental officers’ failure to provide the marines in their charge with necessary training.
Perhaps more worrying are comments contained in a June 2009 investigation revealing serious flaws in the base’s oil-water separators.
A key component of the environmental protection infrastructure of airports, factories and military bases, oil-water separators prevent substances such as fuel and solvents from leaking into the environment.
The 2009 report blamed a leak of fuel into the sea on the failure of Schwab’s oil-water separators and stated that they “do not work” in heavy rain.
If accurate, the assessment raises serious concerns about the installation, particularly given the propensity for torrential precipitation in the Yambaru jungles where Schwab is situated.
U.S. Forces Japan denied the problem could damage the local environment.
“It is a known characteristic of oil-water separators that they are less effective during heavy rainfall,” Severns wrote. “Our engineers are aware of this and take it into account when designing our remediation systems.”
Meanwhile, reports also reveal the careless storage of chemicals on Camp Hansen.
One incident in December 2011 involved 7 kilograms of calcium hypochlorite bleach powder transported to Okinawa following joint U.S.-Australia war games. Sloppily stored in a shipping container, some of the chemical began to react with the air, injuring a marine who opened the container’s door.
Despite the injury and the fact that the container’s paperwork had not been filled out, the USMC supervisor failed to report the incident.
One month later, after superior officers had finally been notified, the base declared the situation an emergency and called in a Hazmat team from the local Japanese fire department to clean up the spill site. The empty shipping container was subsequently transported to USMC Camp Kinser, Urasoe City.
Recently Camp Kinser itself has been at the focus of environmental concerns. In the 1970s, the base — then run by the U.S. Army and known as Machinato, or Makiminato, Service Area — contained an outdoor storage yard for chemicals returned from the Vietnam War.
According to military reports, these substances, including herbicides and solvents, contaminated the soil with heavy metals and the pesticide chlordane that seeped into the sea, killing large numbers of fish.
Earlier this year, tests conducted by Urasoe City on a river adjacent to Camp Kinser found sediment contaminated with the same toxins, suggesting the base continues to suffer from serious contamination.
U.S. Forces Japan refuses to make public current on-base environmental data for Camp Kinser.
A primer on U.S. bases listed in FOIA reports
Marine Corps Air Station Futenma
Size: 4.8 square kilometers (including a 2.8-kilometer runway)
Japanese base workers: 208
U.S. service members: Classified
Located smack-dab in the middle of the city of Ginowan, Okinawa’s most controversial base — often dubbed the most dangerous in the world — is surrounded by homes, schools and hospitals. In 1996, to placate public fury following the gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl by three service members from Camp Hansen, Washington and Tokyo agreed to close Futenma air base. However, that plan has stalled due to insistence that USMC operations be moved to a new base near Camp Schwab — a decision opposed by the majority of Okinawans. In 2004, the crash of a USMC helicopter into the neighboring Okinawa International University only increased demands for Futenma air base’s closure.
U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab
Size: 20.6 square kilometers
Japanese base workers: 242
U.S. service members: Classified
Named after Battle of Okinawa hero Albert E. Schwab and built upon a former civilian internment camp, the remains of approximately 300 Okinawans still lie within the base. During the Cold War, the installation and its adjacent arsenal stored nuclear warheads and, veterans say, a large cache of Agent Orange. Today, live fire training and sea drills are held here. The proposed site for operations relocated from Futenma air base, the USMC envisages a new base with twin runways and a deepwater port. The Japanese government contends the environmental impact will be minimal but many Okinawans — Gov. Takeshi Onaga included — argue the millions of tons of landfill will cause irrevocable damage to the sea.
U.S. Marine Corps Camp Hansen
Size: 51.1 square kilometers
Japanese base workers: 576
U.S. service members: Classified
Home to the sprawling Central Training Area and the largest live-fire land range on Okinawa, the base has been a constant cause of concern for local residents due to forest conflagrations and stray rounds. Until 1997, exercises shot ordnance over Prefectural Route 104, where a much-photographed sign warned drivers to be careful of overhead projectiles. Camp Hansen hit the headlines in 1995 when two sailors and one marine from there raped a young girl. In 2013, a helicopter crashed within the base near a dam but local government officials were denied access to check for contamination.