• JIJI, Kyodo

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Building the replacement facility for the relocation of a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture is now expected to cost ¥930 billion, far exceeding its initial ¥350 billion estimate, and be delayed several years, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

The ministry has now estimated the land reclamation work will take nine years and three months, nearly twice as long as originally expected.

It will now take 12 years to complete the project of relocating the operations of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal zone of Henoko.

That means the return of the land in the city of Ginowan is likely to be delayed until some point in the 2030s or later, compared with fiscal 2022 or later as set out under an agreement between Japan and the United States in 2013.

The new estimate was presented at a meeting of experts on Wednesday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Thursday that steadily carrying out the relocation work would lead to the earliest full return of Futenma and removal of danger.

The delay is expected to be met with strong local opposition.

“This kind of public works project should be suspended immediately,” Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, a vocal opponent of the relocation plan, told reporters Thursday at the Okinawa Prefectural Government’s headquarters in Naha. “We have reiterated previously that the works at Henoko would take at least 13 years and cost ¥2 trillion or more.”

According to the current plan, the construction for the replacement facility was supposed to take five years to finish and cost ¥350 billion. But additional work is necessary to reinforce the weak seafloor in an area where the land reclamation work is due to be carried out off the coast of Henoko in the city of Nago. After the construction is completed, more preparations such as moving and procuring equipment will be necessary before the relocated base can begin operations, according to the ministry.

The ministry began soil placement work off Henoko in December last year. However, it later found some of the ground in the area to be too soft.

The ministry now wants to install 71,000 support piles to bolster the weak ground. It plans to file an application to change its construction plan with the Okinawa Prefectural Government in the new year.

“We will aim to move ahead with the (additional) work smoothly,” Defense Minister Taro Kono told reporters Wednesday.

But Tamaki is unlikely to approve the change. Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana told reporters Wednesday that this is a good opportunity for the central government to re-examine the base relocation plan.

The plan was delayed in 2015 when Takeshi Onaga, the governor of Okinawa at the time, revoked his predecessor’s permission for the land reclamation. The decision led to court disputes between the central and Okinawa governments.

The project to move the Futenma base originated in an agreement reached between Tokyo and Washington in 1996. But local residents have long hoped for the base to be moved outside of the island prefecture, which is home to about 70 percent of the total area of land exclusively used by U.S. military forces in Japan.

Still, the central government has maintained that the current relocation plan is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Japan and the United States plan to reclaim about 160 hectares, including the sea area with soft ground, for the replacement facility and build two runways in a V configuration.

A prefectural referendum on the transfer plan was held in February, with more than 70 percent voting against it.

Tamaki said in an interview with Kyodo News in March that it was impossible to conduct such seafloor reinforcement work and he has no plan to approve the additional work.

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