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Okinawa lawmakers grill governor over Futenma relocation approval

About 1,500 people rally in front of the Okinawa prefectural government office Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, to urge Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to turn down a request from Tokyo government to reclaim waters off Henoko in Nago to build a new Marine Corps runway as part of a move from the current air operations at MCAS Futenma to Camp Schwab.

NAHA, Okinawa — Okinawa lawmakers grilled Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on Friday over his recent approval of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma relocation despite lingering concerns within his own administration over environmental damage.

Opposition ranks in the prefectural assembly have ordered an inquiry into the decision and alleged the governor bowed to pressure from Tokyo, ignoring his staff’s assessment that a new airfield might harm the coastal ecosystem and disturb nearby residents.

Nakaima defended his decision during his sworn testimony Friday, saying Tokyo had met the requirements for offshore construction permission and his decision was in line with Japanese law.

The governor’s December approval of permits for the Japan Ministry of Defense to build a V-shaped offshore airfield for the Marine Corps in Nago was the first major step forward in the U.S.-Japan effort to move the Futenma base out of the island’s urban center. But the decision has also reignited fierce local debate over the American military presence on Okinawa — a situation that has dogged the security alliance for decades.

“Judging from the standpoint of the standards required by law, there was no other option but to approve the request,” Nakaima told lawmakers.

The Nakaima administration spent nearly a year reviewing the ministry’s lengthy environmental study and mitigation plan for the airfield site in Oura Bay, which is adjacent to the Camp Schwab Marine base.

In an initial response published last fall, the prefecture said it could not rule out negative effects on the bay and surrounding rural area of Nago.

The bay is habitat for the endangered dugong, a relative of the manatee, as well as coral reefs. Some fear aircraft noise and potential crashes could be a nuisance to residents.

Nakaima said Tokyo has since ensured environmental safeguards will be put in place during construction work.

Opponents had latched onto the earlier doubt and hoped the governor might use it as a basis for rejecting the relocation of U.S. MV-22 Ospreys, helicopters and large fixed-wing aircraft farther north on the island.

Nakaima surprised many in December when he granted permission for the project. The United States lauded the decision after weathering repeated delays and setbacks since agreeing with Japan in 2006 to move Futenma.

“The Okinawa public does not accept your decision, which was made while knowing that the environment concern has yet to be cleared up,” Sogi Kayo of the Japan Communist Party said during the hearing Friday.

The inquiry is scheduled to continue Monday, when Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine will appear before the panel of Okinawa lawmakers, where he will likely find allies and support.

The mayor has emerged as a key opponent to the relocation plan and vowed since his re-election in January to use all his power to defeat the effort.

Inamine championed the biodiversity of the bay during recent meetings with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and foreign media in Tokyo.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com

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