Japan spent ¥15.5 billion to remove polluted soil, waste from land formerly used by U.S. forces in Okinawa

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Part of Camp Zukeran in Okinawa Prefecture

NAHA — About ¥15.5 billion had to be spent by the Japanese government to remove contaminated soil and other waste, in connection with facilities and areas returned to Japan that were formerly used by U.S. forces in Okinawa Prefecture, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned from the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau.

In Okinawa, which will mark the 50th anniversary of its reversion to Japan in May, effective use of the returned areas is necessary for the prefecture to realize a self-reliant economy. Yet, there has been a succession of such cases in which waste matter and waste products were unearthed after the land was returned, causing delays in developing the land.

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement stipulates: “The United States is not obliged, when it returns facilities and areas to Japan … to restore [them] to the condition in which they were at the time they became available to the United States armed forces, or to compensate Japan in lieu of such restoration.”

The Japanese government has returned the areas to the original landowners after decontaminating polluted soil and removing unexploded bombs and waste. This has been performed under the law concerning special measures to promote the effective use of the areas formerly used by the U.S. forces in Okinawa Prefecture.

According to the bureau, a total sum of ¥15.48 billion has been spent on the removal of such waste at 23 locations that have been returned, either wholly or partially, to Japan since the law was put in force in 1995. As there are also those returned areas whose detailed information is unknown, as the term to preserve relevant data has expired, the overall removal cost is reckoned to be larger than that.

A sample breakdown of the costs shows that ¥7.98 billion was spent on the removal of contaminated soil and waste from about 51 hectares of land in the city of Ginowan, which was a housing area in Nishi-Futenma at Camp Zukeran that was returned in 2015; and that ¥1.73 billion was used to remove waste at Camp Kuwae, part of which was returned in 2003, totaling about 38 hectares of land in the town of Chatan.

At Zukeran, more than 280 tons of waste and about 5,500 unexploded bombs were disposed of, while at Kuwae, soil contaminated with lead and arsenic was removed.

At nine locations where the removal cost was extensive, it took about one year to three years and eight months for the areas to be transferred to the landowners.

On the other hand, there has also been a stream of such cases in which waste was found underground after the areas were returned.

According to the Okinawa prefectural government and other entities, at the Northern Training Area, which stretches across the villages of Higashi and Kunigami and part of which was returned in 2016, the remnants of about 260 steel plates were confirmed, while at part of Kadena Air Base in the city of Okinawa that was turned into a soccer ground, a large number of drums were found when it was being converted in 2013, disrupting the construction work. At Kuwae, too, lead and other such products were found one after another, forcing an extension to the land readjustment project in the area.

The prefectural government has asked both the central and U.S. governments to carry out the removal work and also to discuss how to share the expenses, saying, “The United States also has responsibility as the polluter.”

A supplementary agreement on the environment concluded in 2015 that is now part of the Status of Forces Agreement allows on-site inspections to be carried out about half a year before the return of an area. The prefectural government, however, is calling for these inspections to be allowed at least three years before the scheduled return of land, so that local governments will be able to grasp the status of ground contamination and be able to start on developing the area at an early stage.

“A major premise is that U.S. forces should thoroughly manage the land,” Kiminori Hayashi, an associate professor at Meiji Gakuin University and a scholar on environmental policy, points out. “But there is some waste that has been buried during times when environmental factors were of little consideration. The on-site inspection should be moved forward as much as possible, which would lead to smooth utilization of the land.”