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A few days have passed since the Kobe District Court issued its landmark ruling that the central government and a local expressway corporation should reduce vehicle exhaust emissions on National Highway No. 43 in the city of Amagasaki in Hyogo Prefecture. Sufferers from pollution-related asthma and other lung ailments throughout the nation are rightly overjoyed at this first-ever case of a court in effect ordering the government to take steps to reduce exhaust emissions. It is too soon to say, however, that the ruling cleared the air over the actual extent of the government’s responsibility for, well, clearing the air.

To be sure, in his ruling on the suit filed in December 1988 by sufferers of diseases related to air pollution Judge Shogo Takenaka did place the onus directly on the government and the Hanshin Expressway Public Corp., saying they have a duty to prevent air pollution. He also ordered the compensatory payment of 210 million yen to 50 residents of Amagasaki who have various respiratory illnesses, acknowledging a link between their health problems and vehicle-exhaust fumes.

The 11-year-long legal battle thus appears to have ended in victory for the plaintiffs, despite the defendants’ dubious arguments that pollution in the area actually was less than in some other places and that there was no cause-and-effect relationship between the dirty air and the plaintiffs’ ailments.

Some commentators believe that the government will at last be forced to take the necessary steps to reduce the level of pollutants in the air near the highway, and ideally in other areas as well. Experience suggests otherwise. The Amagasaki residents filed their suit because of the central government’s enactment in 1987 of revisions in the law granting compensation for environmental-pollution damage, which ended the practice of designating certain locations as high-pollution areas as well as of recognizing individuals as the victims of air pollution.

Environment Agency officials reportedly are refusing to comment on the Kobe ruling, claiming that it first must be reviewed in detail and that consultations with other government agencies need to be held. There is no predicting how long that will take, since government policymakers have consistently argued that the nation’s highways serve the public’s economic interest as major arteries of commerce. Indeed, they have favored building more of them, even as the number of sufferers from illnesses obviously triggered by air pollution has continued to rise.

Officials at both the road traffic control division of the Construction Ministry and at the Hanshin Expressway Public Corp. were quick to express “regret” at the district court’s failure to take all their arguments into account. The judge actually expressed objections to some of them before reaching his decision. Whether or not to file an appeal apparently has yet to be determined. However, a clear indication of the desire of government bureaucrats to evade any hint of blame for the highway air pollution is the speed with which the Transport Ministry insisted it was in no way responsible in the Amagasaki case — despite the fact that it is charged with monitoring vehicle- exhaust levels.

Government ministries and public highway corporations surely recognize that the Kobe court’s decision ensures the continued prominence of the issue of pollution-related illnesses. In a notable first, the judge’s ruling dealt specifically with the question raised by the plaintiffs of the need for reducing levels of suspended particulate matter, or SPM, a key factor in air pollution caused by vehicle-exhaust emissions, particularly from diesel engines. The district court not only agreed, it said the plaintiffs were entirely justified in insisting that SPM be kept to a level below 1.5 times the government’s own standards for the area.

The threat to human health posed by SPM pollution is real and growing. Medical science is finding increasing evidence of its role, not only in the rising number of sufferers from asthma and other respiratory illnesses, especially among children and the elderly, but also in the rapid increase in lung cancer cases not entirely attributable to smoking. Some specialists believe they are on the verge of detecting a link between diesel exhaust and growing rates of male sterility, although final proof has yet to be found. Stricter controls on vehicle traffic and devices to reduce exhaust pollution both will have a cost. The continued delay in paying the price despite the risk to public health is callously irresponsible.

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