CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The U.S. military restarted efforts this week to build up Guam for the planned relocation of about 5,000 Okinawa Marines, a key piece in the stalled plan to realign forces in the Pacific region and reduce tensions in Japan.
The Navy was showing Guamanians proposed locations for controversial Marine live-fire training ranges and housing during town hall-style meetings and said it will make a final decision on the laydown of the new facilities after a two- to three-year environmental study.
Guam was chosen in 2006 as a relocation site, after the U.S. and Japan finally bent to Okinawa demands and agreed to reduce the large troop presence here. But the needed improvements on Guam have been slow to materialize and some earlier relocation work was recently scrapped due to public opposition and shifting U.S.-Japan plans.
“We are trying to receive comments and see what may work” for the Marines on the island, said Maj. Darren Alvarez, local deputy director of the Joint Guam Program Office, which is handling the buildup for the Navy.
The Navy originally proposed using an ancient ancestral burial ground, called Pagat, as a location for the Marines to train with machine guns and grenades. It was strongly opposed by many citizens groups, sparking a lawsuit against the service and the Department of Defense. The military eventually agreed to conduct another study of sites.
In the meantime, the U.S. and Japan signed a revised agreement in April that reduced the number of Marines slated to move to Guam. The island is now set to become one of several key locations in a new Marine Corps presence that will arc across the Pacific, from joint bases in Australia to domestic bases in Hawaii.
The Guam move would significantly reduce the 19,000 Marines on Okinawa, who have remained since World War II and caused resentment due to sporadic crime, air traffic and noise. Over the last two months, Okinawans have waged numerous protests over the arrival of Osprey aircraft and the U.S. military called a Japan-wide curfew after two sailors were charged with gang-raping and robbing an Okinawa woman.
But little progress has been made recently on Guam. The amended U.S. Japan agreement in April reduced the relocation from 9,000 to 5,000 and meant the Navy had to discard months of work.
Alvarez said the Navy has started fresh with an expanded list of seven potential sites for the firing ranges and housing. They include Pagat.
“We have no preferred alternative at this point,” he said.
The service is now asking the public to weigh in on the sites and will use that information to eventually make its decision, expected in 2015. If training ranges are built in the Pagat area, the Navy has pledged to allow Guamanians unfettered year-round access to the land, Alvarez said.
Sen. Judy Guthertz, chairwoman of the Guam legislature’s military buildup committee, said many on Guam support the military buildup as an economic opportunity and eagerly anticipate progress toward relocating the Marines.
Guthertz has pressed for local businesses to have access to construction contracting and she has also asked Congress to expedite the environmental studies and release of federal funding for the buildup.
However, the military’s continued pursuit of the Pagat site could be a potential snag, Guthertz said.
“It is still something they are seriously looking at,” she said. “It may be contentious and it could be controversial still.”