LOS ANGELES – On Monday, American and Japanese conservationists seeking to protect endangered dugongs appealed a U.S. district court ruling in August allowing the construction of a new U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture.
The plaintiffs contend that the base will destroy a crucial habitat for the last remaining Okinawa dugongs, an endangered marine mammal and relative of the manatee.
The appeal argues that the court ruling by the Northern District of California overlooked key procedural and public-participation requirements of the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act, or the need for the U.S. Department of Defense to discuss the impact of the planned base construction with local residents.
The case now returns to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last year that the issue deserved a full hearing on the environmental merits.
At issue is a Japan-U.S. plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, situated in a crowded residential area in Ginowan, to a less populated coastal district in Nago, both on the island of Okinawa. Many local residents want the military facility moved outside of the prefecture altogether.
Plaintiffs say if construction of the airbase is allowed to continue, it would fill in and pave over 125 acres of rich seagrass and coral habitat in Henoko Bay that is crucial to the species’ survival.
The co-litigants in the appeal are the Japan Environmental Lawyers Foundation, the Save the Dugong Foundation, Anna Shimabukuro, Takuma Higashionna and Yoshikazu Makishi. The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the co-plaintiffs are represented in the case by Earthjustice, which filed the appeal.
“This could be the last chance to save the dugong. The court should compel the U.S. military to follow the law and not wipe out these amazing animals,” said Peter Galvin, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The (U.S. President Donald) Trump administration can’t ignore the cultural and environmental harm of building a massive military base in these beautiful coastal waters,” he said.
The DOD has said it has fully taken into consideration the impact of the base construction through consultation with the Japanese government.
The dugong, which have long been revered by native Okinawans and celebrated as “sirens” that bring warnings of tsunamis, is listed as a natural treasure under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.
Under the National Historic Preservation Act and international law, the United States must avoid or mitigate harm to places or things of cultural significance to another country.
In August, construction of the new air base in Okinawa was temporarily halted when the prefectural government revoked the permit for land reclamation, which had been approved by then-Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima in December 2013.