Okinawa official wants to require cleanups before land is returned
CHATAN, Okinawa — An Okinawa official wants Japan’s new government to ensure the U.S. military cleans up environmental damage before it returns base property.
Tatsuo Oyakawa, the deputy councilor for the prefecture’s Military Affairs Office, said he hoped the Democratic Party of Japan, which took power Wednesday, will work to revise the joint U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.
Under the current 1960 agreement, the U.S. military is not obligated to repair any environmental damage to returned base property. Oyakawa said he’d like to see that changed before the 2006 agreement to realign U.S. troops in Japan goes into high gear.
That agreement includes plans to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a new air facility on Camp Schwab and the transfer of some 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam by the end of 2014. Once that is accomplished, MCAS Futenma, Camp Kinser, Camp Lester and part of Camp Foster are slated for closure.
He said base property returned to local governments and individual landowners in the past was contaminated with arsenic, lead and other pollutants.
“In the past, we had to spend a tremendous amount of time and money in cleaning the returned property,” Oyakawa said.
“We believe that it is the responsibility of the military, the user, to clean up the pollution caused as a result of their operations before returning it to the owners.”
In January 2002, tar-like wastes contained in a total of 215 barrels was uncovered from a construction site in Chatan, formerly a U.S. Army base.
Japan spent about $840,000 to remove the barrels and clean up the area, according to Japanese officials.
Of 11 provisions in the SOFA the prefecture wants renegotiated, the environmental clause is the most pressing issue, he said.
“There are no provisions concerning environment,” Oyakawa said. “And the realignment plan involves a large scale of closure and return of military bases on Okinawa.”
Although Article IV of the SOFA states the U.S. is not required to restore facilities to their previous condition prior to return, the military remains a good caretaker of base property, said U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Marine Maj. Neal Fisher II.
“The U.S. routinely expends significant resources to clean up areas that may be contaminated by U.S. operations today,” he said in an e-mail response to Stars and Stripes.
“Remembering that we not only work on U.S. bases, but we, and our families, live there, it is clear that it is in the interest of the U.S. armed forces to keep facilities and areas free from harm to human health and the environment,” he said.
Fisher said there are ongoing bilateral discussions concerning the environment.
“Please keep in mind that although the wording of the SOFA hasn’t changed over the years, it is a living, breathing document that is constantly being addressed by the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee to ensure it is carried out in the best interests of both parties,” he said.
Sometimes environmental issues concerning returned base property takes years to address.
For example, in 2002 some 24 barrels of waste oil were found buried in a tract of land in Chatan that was once a U.S. Army firing range, according to Okinawa prefectural officials. The land was returned in 1981.
The barrels were buried about 6 feet underground, and the Japanese government paid to have them dug up and disposed of along with contaminated soil, officials said.
Oyakawa said the prefecture also wants to be able to access the bases following an event, such as a fuel spill, that damages the environment.
“When environmental pollution occurs, prefectural and local government agencies are not able to assess such damage independently,” he said.