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Okinawa officials want Japanese government’s help to clean tainted groundwater

Okinawa police arrested a 24-year-old airman following a hit-and-run incident on May 29, 2017.

MATTHEW M. BURKE/STARS AND STRIPES

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND KEN KUNIYOSHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 12, 2017

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Officials say Okinawans’ water bills could rise if the Japanese government doesn’t help shoulder decontamination costs for pollutants that have been linked to U.S. military bases.

The Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau, which manages pumping and purification facilities that provide safe drinking water for many on the southern island prefecture, said no official decision has been made; however, the costs of decontaminating groundwater to make it safe for consumption will be passed on to consumers if Japan’s Defense Ministry doesn’t step in to help.

“Just like the private sector, we need to have a balanced checkbook,” said Takashi Oshiro, a spokesman with the bureau’s wastewater management division.

Enterprise Bureau officials said they have not yet settled on an amount they plan to request. They also could not say how much individual bills could rise. The Japanese government covers utility costs for U.S. military bases in the country.

The pollutants in question are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, the officials said. Both are found in firefighting foam, aircraft grease, water-repellant materials and fluorine chemicals. They have been known to cause tumors, increases in body and organ weight and death in animals. Their manufacture and importation have been prohibited in Japan since 2010.

In recent years, high levels of PFOS and PFOA have been detected in water running under Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Kadena Air Base. Enterprise Bureau officials stopped short of blaming the U.S. military for the pollution; however, local environmental officials have pointed fingers at those bases in the past.

“No one raises their hand and says, ‘It is my fault,’ but high levels [of PFOS] are detected at the water sources [adjacent to Kadena],” an Enterprise Bureau spokesman said.

U.S. military officials did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which represents the Japanese government, said it isn’t yet clear that the pollution came from those bases. Each case needs to be examined independently using scientific tools before they weigh in on payment, he said, adding that the U.S. military is investigating the matter.

The rising costs the Enterprise Bureau faces are partly attributed to the replacement of granular-carbon filters that remove PFOS so that water is safe to drink, the Enterprise Bureau spokesman said. Four filters were replaced in fiscal year 2016 at a cost of $1.5 million. Four more will need to be replaced every year until at least 2020. Officials plan to ask the Okinawa Defense Bureau to foot the bill for the total cost of the filters.

A spokesman for the prefectural office that supervises financial planning said the financial review for the past fiscal year, which ended in March, should be completed this month by the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly. Water costs could be part of those discussions.

Testing for PFOS began in 2014. Levels of the pollutant have declined on the island since then; however, a July survey of seven groundwater sites found that three contained PFOS exceeding the U.S. drinking water health advisory level, which is 0.07 micrograms per liter, the Enterprise Bureau spokesman said. Hija river pump station near Kadena registered at .158 micrograms per liter; Nagata river pump station, also near Kadena, registered at .112; and Dakujaku river pumping station registered at .324.

burke.matt@stripes.com

kuniyoshi.ken@stripes.com

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