Air Force: Kadena school area near where tainted drums found 'completely safe'

Brig. Gen. James B. Hecker


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 24, 2014

CAMP LESTER, Okinawa -- The Air Force said Saturday it has tested the air and soil at Kadena Air Base schools and found no pollution dangers following the discovery of buried dioxin- and herbicide-laced drums nearby that has raised fears among military parents.

Brig. Gen. James Hecker, the 18th Wing commander, said the base believes the school area is “completely safe” despite being within sight of the off-base soccer field where the tainted drums were found.

A town hall meeting for worried parents and residents is scheduled for Tuesday at Kadena.

Twenty-two empty Dow Chemical drums have been unearthed since June, and another 11 unidentified containers have been detected but remain buried at the Japanese site, which is adjacent to Kadena’s Amelia Earhart Intermediate School and the Bob Hope Primary School. The land was used by the Air Force until 1986, according to the service.

Soil and air samples were collected at the schools by the Air Force this month, Hecker said in a released statement Saturday.

“All samples have come back well within environmental safety standards, but we plan to conduct an additional round of more stringent compliance sampling in the area in order to provide additional reassurance to parents and community members,” he said.

The base drinking water supply comes from a commercial Japanese source not connected with groundwater in the school area. Air Force tests -- including testing for the dioxin and detected herbicide found at the soccer field -- found the drinking water meets all U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, Hecker said.

The Japanese soccer field is several hundred feet from a military playground but is separated from the schools by an elevated Okinawa expressway and a drainage culvert. Hecker said the geography of the site alone makes it “highly improbable” that any substances from where the drums were found could have reached the schools.

“There is no evidence the materials on the barrels have migrated at all,” he said. “Moreover, the entire space between the soccer fields and the base is designed to draw substances away from the schools.”

During the past seven months, Japanese testing immediately around the buried drums found high levels of dioxin and a banned herbicide. But further testing by Okinawa City, the prefecture and Ministry of Defense indicated the potentially dangerous substances did not spread to the rest of the soccer field or nearby waterways and wells. Japanese authorities have said they think the drums were empty when buried.

The discovery of the drums sparked fears among hundreds of military residents and parents, who called for a town hall meeting this week after an Agent Orange victims’ advocate warned that the pollution could cause a range of fatal diseases and birth defects.

A public meeting to discuss the drums and soccer field pollution is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ryukyu Middle School on Kadena Air Base.

The soccer field land was once used by the Air Force, and some claim that the drums could be evidence of Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam-era defoliant contaminated with dioxin that the U.S. says was never present on Okinawa. Dow Chemical, a producer of the wartime herbicide, said the unearthed 30-gallon drums were never used for Agent Orange; one U.S. expert said they likely contained base garage and hospital waste.

“There has been significant speculation as to what might have been contained within the barrels originally, and at this point we do not definitively know,” Hecker said.

The site of the schools and Japanese soccer field was vacant for about 30 years before a section was returned to Okinawa control in 1986, the 18th Wing public affairs office wrote in an email Saturday.

“We have no records that would indicate any specific or deliberate plans to place chemicals in the area for any reason,” the statement said.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

A Japanese worker brushes away dirt from one of 16 barrels unearthed in Okinawa City on June 13, 2013. The city called for Tokyo to investigate for Agent Orange, but manufacturer Dow Chemical Company denied the drums contained the herbicide.

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