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Final decision looming on relocation plan for air base on Okinawa

A KC-130J Super Hercules cargo aircraft taxis on the runway at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan, Mach 18, 2011.

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — After years of delays, a final decision on the effort to relocate the Futenma air station elsewhere on Okinawa may be on the horizon.

Tokyo delivered a finished environmental report on the project to the island government last week and can ask the Okinawa governor for construction permits — a crucial step in the relocation — a month after the document has been made public to residents.

However, it remains uncertain exactly when Tokyo will ask for permission or if Okinawa is finally prepared to accept the deeply unpopular U.S. base.

Strong local resistance to the Futenma relocation has frustrated U.S.-Japan efforts to reduce Marine forces on Okinawa and return military land to Japanese owners for years. Many residents want Futenma moved off Okinawa and oppose transferring the U.S. air operations to a newly built base around what is now Camp Schwab near Nago.

Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, an outspoken critic of the Futenma plan and the large military presence on the island, gave little indication how he may rule on the construction permits. Under Japanese law, the national government needs Nakaima to sign off before it can fill part of Henoko Bay to build new V-shaped runways for Marine Corps aircraft.

“A decision whether or not to grant permits for reclamation will be made after thorough review of the report,” Nakaima said last Thursday.

Meanwhile, the environmental report must also be made available for public viewing and comments for a month before the national government can request the runway construction permits from the governor, a Japan Ministry of Defense spokesman said.

Local officials could not say when that 30-day window may begin. A spokesman for the Okinawa Defense Bureau said a date for publishing the report had not been set but it would be made available to the public “as soon as practically possible.”

Nakaima’s government flatly rejected an initial environmental report submitted by Tokyo a year ago.

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The national government had determined the relocation would cause no significant damage to the marine environment at Henoko, a quiet coastal area far from the densely developed areas in the southern half of the island.

Okinawa raised 579 issues with the original report and is now combing through the amended version to see if Tokyo has addressed its concerns, which included noise from the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft recently deployed by the Marine Corps and threats to wildlife such as coral reefs, sea turtles and the endangered dugong, a spokesman for the governor’s office said.

The timing of the permit requests will be up to Japan’s newly elected national government.

If Okinawa ultimately refuses permits to move Futenma, it could signal deep troubles for the U.S.-Japan agreement to close the base.

The two allies unveiled a renewed agreement on the Okinawa drawdown in April, saying they will no longer hold up plans to relocate Marine forces off Okinawa while searching for a solution to the Futenma issue.

The move stoked local fears that the deeply unpopular air station may be left behind and become a permanent fixture as the U.S. realigns forces in the region.

Stars and Stripes reporters Chiyomi Sumida and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

trittent@pstripes.osd.mil

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