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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa environmentalists welcomed a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling on a lawsuit Thursday that could delay construction of a new Marine air facility on Okinawa and the move of some 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California in 2003 by a coalition of U.S. and Japanese conservation groups, claimed the Defense Department failed to conduct its own study of the effects of building the new air station on the lower half of Camp Schwab and the shallow waters of Oura Bay. It claimed the failure violated a preservation act that requires federal agencies to study how their activities affect culturally significant areas.

The suit also claimed the airport construction would damage the breeding ground of the Okinawa dugong, a saltwater manatee whose northernmost habitat is the warm waters off Okinawa.

The judge’s ruling upheld the plaintiffs’ contention the act covers such properties in the States and abroad where U.S. facilities are involved.

“The ruling is a huge step forward,” Koichi Makishi, one of the plaintiffs, said Friday. “We are hoping to have an opportunity at the earliest possible time to discuss the issue with U.S. government.”

However, Japanese officials in Tokyo said they did not expect the ruling would delay the ongoing plan to move Marine air operations on Okinawa to the Henoko peninsula.

“We understand that the ruling restricts operations of the facility, not the construction of the facility,” said a spokesman for Ministry of Defense in Tokyo. “We therefore believe that the ruling has no direct connection with the construction project itself.”

Local officials disagree, contending the project requires an evaluation of the impact on the environment — and the dugong — before it can go forward.

“If environmental assessment finds adverse impact on the environment, changes are inevitable,” said Miwako Ueyonahara, chief of the Futenma Relocation Affairs Office of Okinawa prefectural government.

The judge gave the Defense Department 90 days to produce a plan to assess the project’s impact on the dugong and develop ways to document a plan to protect the animals.

U.S. and Japanese officials say replacing MCAS Futenma, located in the middle of an urban area, with a base in the island’s rural northeast is the key to realigning U.S. troops in Japan. The realignment plan includes moving 8,000 Marines to Guam and closing some of their Okinawa camps by 2014.

Meanwhile, a marine biologist said the clock is ticking for Okinawa’s dugongs no matter what happens.

Senzo Uchida, a marine scientist and director of Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, said that at most there are only a few dozen dugongs living in Okinawa waters. And they already face a danger — fishing nets — that could spell their doom before the airport is completed.

“If such a thing occurs, it is a big shame on Japan,” he said.


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