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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Six U.S. and Japanese environmental groups have joined to file a suit in a U.S. District Court against building a Marine air station in waters off northeast Okinawa.

The suit seeks to protect Okinawa’s endangered dugongs, saltwater manatees that feed off seaweed beds in the area of the proposed airport.

The suit cited the U.S. Department of Defense and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and was filed on Friday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division.

The Japan-based groups include the Japan Environmental Lawyers Federation, Dugong Network Okinawa, Save the Dugong Foundation and Committee Against the Heliport Construction-Save Life Society.

The California-based Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Project joined the Okinawa groups in filing the suit.

Also named as plaintiffs are three Okinawa residents — Anna Koshiishi, Takuma Higashionna and Yshikazu Makishi — and an Okinawa dugong identified as “Dugong Dugon.”

The plaintiffs say they’re concerned the 1.5-mile-long airport, to be built on 455 acres of reclaimed land and a reef about 2 miles offshore from the fishing village of Henoko, will destroy the “most important remaining habitat of the Okinawa dugong.”

The suit asks that the United States comply with the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act by conducting a study to assess the project’s impact on the dugong, also called “sea cow.”

The environmental groups contend the act requires U.S. agencies to conduct full environmental impact studies before undertaking activities even outside the United States if those activities might impact other nations’ cultural and natural resources.

The Okinawa dugong has been designated a “natural monument” under Japan’s law for protecting cultural properties.

In 1996 the bilateral Special Action Committee on Okinawa adopted a plan to reduce the amount of island land used by the U.S. military by 21 percent.

An integral part of that plan was to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, in the middle of urban Ginowan, to an alternate site in a more remote area of the island.

In July 2002 the Futenma Relocation Council, made up of national, prefectural and local officials, decided the air base should be located off Henoko fishing village and connected to nearby Camp Schwab. Civilian commercial aircraft also would use the new facility, expected to cost about $2.9 billion.

The Marine Corps has said the dugong controversy is between Okinawa and Japan’s national government, which is to pay all construction costs.

Takenobu Tsuchida of Dugong Network Okinawa welcomed the support of American environmental groups and said in a prepared statement, “We are glad our friends in the United States have joined our efforts to preserve an essential icon of Okinawan culture. The base planned on this coral reef threatens the survival of the Okinawa dugong.”

Peter Galvin, Center for Biological Diversity director, said in a prepared statement that the Okinawa dugong is “the most isolated and imperiled dugong population on the world. “Scientists believe that only 50 dugong survive in the waters off Okinawa,” he said. “The project, if constructed, would very likely drive the Okinawa dugong into extinction.”

Takuma Higashionna, Dugong Network Okinawa director, has contended the construction also will endanger shellfish and other marine life. “The money that will come to the community because of the airport will be a one-time thing,” he told Stars and Stripes last year. “What will be forever left with us is the noise and destroyed nature.”

However, the number of dugongs in the waters surrounding Okinawa is in dispute. Okinawa is considered to be the dugong’s northernmost habitat, with 100,000 in existence worldwide. Mistaken by early mariners for mermaids, they are common to Northern Australia and Indonesia.

Most reports on the dugong state that just 18 have been sighted since 1979 in Okinawa waters. Most of them were dead, found washed up on beaches.

The largest number sighted off Okinawa at any one time was six in 1998. Two were sighted during a three-month study by marine biologists in 2000, one swimming several miles north of the proposed air base.

Marine biologist Senzo Uchida, who has been studying dugongs for years, estimates no more than a dozen may live in Okinawan waters.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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