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Takuma Higashionna, director of the Okinawa Save the Dugong Network, recently returned from a hearing in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco. His group is one of six Japanese and U.S. environmental organizations suing to stop plans for a new Marine air station in northeast Okinawa.

Takuma Higashionna, director of the Okinawa Save the Dugong Network, recently returned from a hearing in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco. His group is one of six Japanese and U.S. environmental organizations suing to stop plans for a new Marine air station in northeast Okinawa. (David Allen / S&S)

HENOKO, Okinawa — Opponents of the planned construction of a new Marine air station in the waters off this sleepy fishing village hope a U.S. federal court will step in where the Japanese and U.S. governments have refused to tread.

Claiming the airport would destroy the northernmost habitat of the endangered dugong, which feed off seaweed beds in the area of the proposed airport, six Japanese and U.S. environmental groups have sued to halt the project, arguing that the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act protects the distant cousin of the Florida manatee.

The dugong is classified as a “natural monument” by Japan and the environmentalists argue the U.S. law requires the U.S. government to conduct an environmental impact study before embarking on a project that could affect historically significant areas. They say the law covers culturally significant areas in the United States and abroad where U.S. facilities are involved.

Justice Department lawyers argue the suit should be dismissed since dugongs are not historic property and the United States had no say in selecting the site in rural northeastern Okinawa, which eventually is to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban Ginowan.

Opening arguments in the case were heard Aug. 4 in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Among the Okinawans attending was Takuma Higashionna, leader of the Henoko-based Save the Dugong Network.

Higashionna and five Okinawans, including a plaintiff named as Dugong, filed the suit, titled Okinawa Dugong v. Rumsfeld, last fall. They were joined by five other environmental groups in the U.S. and Japan, including the Oakland-based Earthjustice.

“It was indeed a significant trip,” he said after he returned to Okinawa this week. “American people over there are paying attention to the lawsuit, thanks to efforts by members the Earthjustice.

“My impression was that the court was very fair in listening to stories of both sides,” he said. “I am convinced that things will work favorably for us if the court stands in a neutral ground.”

Higashionna’s suit asks the United States to conduct a full environmental impact study of the project, a 1.5-mile long airport to be built on 455 acres of reclaimed land and a reef about two miles offshore. The facility is planned to be used jointly by civilian aircraft and would be connected to Camp Schwab.

While the suit is being heard in San Francisco, protesters marked their 100th day of an encampment at the Henoko port, preventing a Japanese government environmental survey of the seabed.

“If the court finds the U.S. government is involved in the project, the [Defense Department] will be required to take protective measures to comply with the law to preserve historic properties,” he said. “Meanwhile, we will demand the Japanese government halt the environmental survey they are about to start.

“Our stance is the case is under dispute in a U.S. court, therefore the government should not proceed with the survey until the court makes a decision on it,” he said. “The longer we can delay the project, the more supports we can get from public because I can feel growing public opinion that supports our effort.”

Higashionna said he was encouraged by comments Chief U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hal Patel made from the bench.

“A representative for the Defense Department argued that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the construction project, that the Japanese government is handling it,” Higashionna said. “He cited a report concerning the relocation of Futenma air station complied by U.S. military in September 1997 to support his argument, but said that the content of the report was confidential.

“However, the judge ordered him to submit the report to the court by Aug. 21,” he said. “The court will then judge whether to keep the report confidential or to open it to the public.”


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