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The report released last week on the fiasco over relocation of Tokyo’s main wholesale market to Toyosu points to a glaring deficiency in governance on the part of the metropolitan government. Not only was it giving false explanations to the public and the metropolitan assembly about steps taken to shield the new market facility from toxic substances found on its site, but it is unable to identify who made the decision and when to change the construction plan that was recommended by a panel of experts.

In releasing the report based on the hearing of metropolitan government officials, Gov. Yuriko Koike said the decision not to cover the whole market site with deep layers of clean soil but create hollow underground spaces under the main market buildings was made “step by step” over time and “in an atmosphere” — saying that it’s hard to pinpoint who in the bureaucracy made which decision and when. That should not be the way decisions are made in an organization like the metropolitan government. On the other hand, it would be a shame if officials were still trying to cover up for each other to blur their responsibility.

When the delayed relocation of the wholemarket market — currently in Tsukiji in Chuo Ward — to the Toyosu site takes place will be decided by judging the safety of the Toyosu facility in scientific means, Koike said. But the governor must also break through what she called a system of collective irresponsibility to clarify who made the key decisions and why. Otherwise, any reassurance of the Toyosu market’s safety by the metropolitan government may not be convincing enough for consumers as well as the market’s merchants, who are already dismayed by the debacle.

Following the decision in 2001 to relocate the aging Tsukiji market to the Toyosu reclaimed area, high concentrations of toxic substances such as benzene were found on the Toyosu site, on which formerly stood a Tokyo Gas plant. In 2008, a panel of experts recommended that the top soil of Toyosu site be removed and replaced with a 4.5-meter layer of clean soil to shield the new market facility from the contamination. That’s how the metropolitan government publicly explained the work on the new market building at Toyosu was proceeding — until it was revealed last month by the new governor, who had put on hold the relocation originally set in November until monitoring of underground water at the site is finished, that the added layer of clean soil was missing beneath the market’s main buildings and that hollow underground spaces have been created instead.

The report explains that the decision to change the construction plan was made “step by step” from October 2008 — a few months after the recommendation by the panel of experts — to early 2013. The metropolitan government section in charge of the wholesale market weighed creating the underground spaces for environmental monitoring in case soil contamination was found in the future, senior officials made the decision to adopt the underground space plan in August 2011, and the final design of the market buildings was completed in February 2013. All the while, the officials involved never consulted the experts panel about the change because they thought the underground spaces would be safe enough and that a 40 cm layer of concrete on the floor of the hollow spaces would substitute for the soil layer to shield possible contamination, the report says.

The report goes on to say that these decisions were not clearly shared within the metropolitan government organization and blames insufficient communication. That sounds like a fairly benign assessment of the problem. Two of the officials who headed the wholesale market division over the period said they knew nothing about changing the soil layer plan or construction of the underground spaces, two officials said they were aware of the underground spaces but thought they were being built on the layer of clean soil, and one official said he knew that the soil layer plan had been changed to create the underground spaces but did not think there was a problem.

And the decisions were never explained to the metropolitan assembly either. When asked, officials in charge of engineering, and responsible for measures against soil contamination, replied that the whole site is covered with layers of clean soil because they did not know the change in the plans, while officials in charge of construction knew the soil layers were missing under the main market buildings but did not bother correcting the explanation because they were not accountable for steps against soil contamination, the report says.

Just as the report was being prepared, the metropolitan government announced that traces of benzene and arsenic slightly exceeding environmental standards were found in underground water at one section of the Toyosu site — whereas earlier monitoring in other areas of the site showed no toxic substances above the standards. The opening of the Toyosu market is not legally contingent on the underground water tests, because underground water will not be used either for drinking or cleaning at the market. Experts reportedly say that the substances at the level detected this time will pose no direct harm to human health.

The safety of the Toyosu market for both its workers and food products should be scientifically verified. But the bureaucratic confusion over the construction of the new market facility has incurred public distrust in its operation, which must be expunged by identifying how the decisions were made and who were responsible. It’s not about naming names, but to make sure the right decisions are made through due process.

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