Okinawa governor vows late-hour challenge to halt Futenma relocation
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 27, 2018
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa’s anti-base governor has once again unveiled plans to revoke permitting for a new coastal runway that will facilitate the relocation and closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Gov. Takeshi Onaga announced Friday that he will revoke approval permitting for landfill into Oura Bay at the remote northern Marine Corps base Camp Schwab, after the central government allegedly violated environmental regulations regarding an endangered species of coral, deviated from construction plans and withheld vital information, according to a statement provided to Stars and Stripes.
Onaga also said surveys indicate the sea wall protecting the construction area may be compromised, there is an active fault in the area and some of the base’s nearby buildings are in violation of U.S. Department of Defense safety guidelines.
Before canceling the permits, Onaga plans to convene a hearing with Okinawa Defense Bureau officials. He cited his executive authority in putting a halt to the project.
“With that many environmental and disaster prevention violations, and factoring in all the disadvantages for locals, the prefectural government has concluded that the Okinawa Defense Bureau has not met the guidelines and also failed to meet the National Land Use Planning Act,” he said in the statement.
“The Okinawa prefectural government is going to start the process of withdrawing the approval,” he added. “I will use any methods and do my best to keep my public commitment [to halt the project].”
Since his landslide election in November 2014, Onaga has caused significant delays through two court challenges, the most recent ending in March, but has thus far been unsuccessful in stopping the relocation.
Construction will continue, at least for the time being, said Masashi Katsuren of the Okinawa Defense Bureau.
“We are aware of the governor’s press conference; however, we have not heard anything officially from the prefectural government, therefore we cannot make any comments at this time,” he said.
Onaga faces re-election in November. He has been battling pancreatic cancer in recent months, but has vowed to push forward with his opposition to the project.
Decades in the making
The relocation project’s genesis can be traced to 1995 when two Marines and a sailor kidnapped and brutally raped a 12-year-old local girl. During mass protests that followed, Ginowan residents called for relocation of Futenma’s air operations out of safety concerns.
The air station is in a densely populated urban area in the center of the tiny island prefecture.
The move was agreed upon during bilateral negotiations in 1996; however, some residents were angered a year later when it was announced that Futenma would be kept within the southern island prefecture.
It was then decided that a runway would be built at Camp Schwab on Okinawa’s remote northern coast and that the base would be expanded to facilitate the move.
In 2013, then-Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima signed off on a permit to allow the landfill work, and construction began in August 2014.
A couple of months later, Onaga was elected on a platform vowing to block the relocation and banish MV-22 Ospreys tiltrotor aircraft from the island.
Construction was suspended in March 2016 after Onaga revoked a permit to fill in the sea for the runway.
That revocation was struck down by the Fukuoka High Court in December 2016. In July 2017, Onaga filed another unsuccessful district court lawsuit saying the government was breaking coral without the proper permits.
Landfill work was delayed until Aug. 17, 2018, after an endangered type of coral — Porites okinawensis — was discovered at the site in July 2017. The delay facilitated the use of an alternative, environmentally-friendly construction method to complete a seawall around the construction site. The coral faces extinction and is on Japan’s Red List of Threatened Species, according to the country’s Ministry of Environment.
The runway is the cornerstone of the Futenma relocation, and the landfill is seen as the last major hurdle. The work is expected to be completed by March 31, 2020, according to the defense bureau.