The plan to relocate Tokyo’s largest wholesale market from Tsukiji to a new site in the reclaimed Toyosu area has run into a major roadblock over food safety and environmental concerns stemming from the failure to build the new facility according to a plan designed to eliminate the effects of toxic materials that were earlier detected at the site. Since the new complex is to take over the functions of Tsukiji, where 1 million tons of fish, fruit and vegetables worth ¥600 billion are traded annually and shipped across the country, officials involved must put priority on safety of the marine and agricultural products at the new market and on the prompt public disclosure of relevant information.

In 2001, then-Gov. Shintaro Ishihara decided to move the Tsukiji market functions to the Toyosu site located about 2 km south in view of the aging facilities at Tsukiji and its limited capacity relative to the amount of food products traded. In 2008, however, toxic materials, including benzene with a concentration 43,000 times the environmentally allowable level, were detected at the roughly 40-hectare site, which formerly housed a Tokyo Gas Co. plant. A panel of environmental experts commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government recommended later the same year removing the top 2 meters of soil of the entire site, replacing it with decontaminated soil and further covering the entire plot with 2.5 meters of fresh soil. This meant that all of the market structures would stand on a 4.5-meter-thick layer of clean soil.

The metropolitan government ordered the soil decontamination work in 2011 and confirmed that it was completed in 2014 at a cost of ¥85.8 billion. It was publicly explained all the while that the new market was being built in accordance with the panel’s recommendation. But earlier this month, shortly after new Gov. Yuriko Koike postponed the November relocation of the Tsukiji functions to Toyosu to await the results of groundwater tests at the new site, it was found that the layer of clean soil was missing underneath the five main structures that occupy about a third of the new market site. Instead, hollow spaces had been created underground.

Media reports have quoted officials as saying that the underground spaces, through which pipes and electrical wires run, were built to bring in heavy equipment to cope with any future soil contamination problems. A hatch covered with a horizontal concrete slab was built above each space, which is large enough to lower heavy equipment into the space.

Whatever the explanations may be, the metropolitan government lied to the public in that its website stated that the whole site was covered with clean soil to block the effects of toxic materials. Furthermore, it conducted an environmental impact assessment on the assumption that the whole Toyosu site was covered with a 4.5-meter layer of clean soil.

The scandal also deepens people’s concern about food safety. Metropolitan officials say that since the hollow spaces have concrete floors 40 cm thick, they can shield the market buildings from toxic materials. But in the discussions by environmental experts, the idea of creating such structures was opposed due to the danger that gases containing toxic substances could form in them. The metropolitan government said Thursday that traces of benzene and arsenic slightly above environmental standards have been detected in underground water samples at the Toyosu site.

Who proposed building the hollow underground utility spaces and who authorized it has not been made clear. It is known that Ishihara referred to the idea of building such spaces in a news conference in 2008. He admitted recently that he suggested considering the idea to high-ranking metropolitan officials but he denies that he was informed about changing the construction plan to create them. Some officials have been quoted in media reports as saying they told a panel of experts on technical aspects of the construction that a revision of the law dealing with soil contamination may make it obligatory to create underground spaces for decontamination work. But the panel does not appear to have fully shared this view. Five successive heads of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market from 2007 on, including the one who signed off on pollution control measures at the Toyosu site, were reportedly unaware of the underground spaces. This sloppiness is beyond belief.

There are many points in the decision-making process that remain unclear. Koike should identify who made what proposals and decisions. Since the premise of the new market’s construction plan is no longer valid, the governor must also quickly evaluate its safety — for the sake of food to be traded and workers there, and take additional measures if needed. She has already vowed to find out why the total cost of the project ballooned from the original estimate of ¥431.6 billion to ¥588.4 billion. She also needs to fulfill the accountability to wholesalers at Tsukiji and others involved who have already invested in preparing for the relocation. The delay in the relocation poses a host of difficulties, including a possible hitch in the construction of a new road for the 2020 Olympics that will run through the Tsukiji site. What must come first, however, is the safety of the food products that will be traded at the new market.

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