A U.S. district court judge in California has denied Pentagon motions to dismiss a case challenging plans to relocate a Marine Corps airbase to another part of Okinawa even as top Defense officials were telling Japanese leaders they were open to moving the airbase to an alternate location.

At issue is where scores of helicopters — and the Marines who fix and fly them — now based at Futenma Air Station will go. The Marine Corps agreed years ago to shut down the base once Japanese officials provided a new location.

Japanese and Marine Corps leaders want to build a new site on reclaimed land off the island's northeast coast. That proposal is being challenged by local and U.S. environmental groups concerned about the habitat of a rare cousin of the manatee called the dugong.

In a case that’s been dubbed the “Okinawa Dugong vs. Donald Rumsfeld,” the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Wednesday denied a Pentagon motion to dismiss a 2003 lawsuit by six Japanese and U.S. environmental groups.

On the same day, Japanese officials met with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Lawless, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for Asian and Pacific affairs.

Lawless told the Japanese delegation “we remain committed to the steady implementation of the (agreement to relocate Futenma), but if the government of Japan proposed an alternative to the current plan that met our alliance requirements, we would consider it,” said Navy Cmdr. Greg Hicks.

District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel said the Defense Department hadn’t sufficiently shown it wasn’t involved in selecting a site at Henoko as a replacement for the Marines Corps air station at Futenma, as Justice Department lawyers had argued.

The lawsuit claims the air station would destroy the northernmost Pacific habitat of the endangered dugong, which feed off sea grass in the area. The dugong is classified as a “natural monument” in Japan and the environmentalists have argued U.S. law requires the government to conduct environmental impact studies before undertaking projects that could affect culturally significant areas.

Patel ruled that the dugong is a cultural property protected under Japanese law and is entitled to protection under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act, which covers culturally significant areas in the United States and abroad where U.S. facilities are involved.

There have been at least 18 confirmed sightings of dugongs on Okinawa since 1979, most of them beached carcasses of the animals that were caught in fishing nets, according to Senzo Uchida, a marine life researcher who has studied the dugong habitats of Okinawa.

Takuma Higashionna, director of the Dugong Network Okinawa, one of the plaintiffs of the case, welcomed the news from San Francisco.

“We take it as a message that the U.S. court would take a positive stance on environmental protection,” he said. “As I have expected, the U.S. court did not close its door to us. Instead, they showed their willingness to hear the stories of both sides.”

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now