Futenma project preliminary work goes on
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 29, 2011
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Congress has ordered a slowdown of the controversial plan to relocate the Futenma air station on Okinawa, President Barack Obama has signed legislation temporarily barring funding for the project and the government of Japan is planning to withhold funds as well.
But none of that discouraged the Pentagon from hailing “significant progress” this week after Japanese officials filed an official environmental assessment of the project with the Okinawan government, one of the steps required if the long-planned realignment of U.S. forces in Japan will ever actually occur.
Despite recent calls from U.S. politicians put the project on hold, the submission of the report allows the two countries to focus on construction permits for new Marine Corps runways on the island, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. The U.S. considers the project a critical military priority in the region.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “looks forward to working with Japan in taking the next step: securing the landfill permit” for construction of offshore runways in northern Okinawa to replace Futenma, Little said in a written statement.
Japan defense officials handed over the 7,000-page environmental document to the Okinawa government around 4 a.m. Wednesday, avoiding protesters who had blocked a delivery attempt the day before. It was the first concrete progress on the contentious U.S.-Japan relocation agreement since it was signed more than five years ago, but the move stirred resentment among Okinawans who are weary of hosting large U.S. bases and want Marine flight operations moved off the island.
Under Japanese law, the U.S. and Japan must first get approval from the Okinawa prefectural government before the sea bottom can be filled to create a new V-shaped airfield beside the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab near Nago city. The base is slated to be transformed into a replacement base for Futenma, which is located in the middle of a dense urban area.
The Okinawa prefectural government has 90 days to review and make comments on the environmental report, which found that, contrary to the assertions of environmentalists and relocation opponents, the move would not harm the endangered dugong, an indigenous sea mammal similar to the manatee. The environmental report also determined that the planned presence of MV-22 Osprey aircraft would not pose a danger to the animals, according to the Mainichi newspaper.
Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who has called for relocating Futenma outside Okinawa, said again this week he will oppose the fill permit.
If Tokyo cannot gain Nakaima’s permission, it could pass a special law to allow the reclamation work or take the case to the Japanese courts.
As Okinawa reviews the report and a clash brews over construction work, the Futenma relocation and a closely related plan to move 8,600 Marines from Okinawa to Guam face other serious roadblocks in the near future.
A U.S. defense authorization act signed this month by President Obama bars any funding for the military realignment projects until the DOD presents better plans and spending figures to Congress. The act also allows Congress to order an independent review of defense plans in the Pacific, including the Futenma relocation and the planned military buildup on Guam.
The Senate has criticized current Defense Department plans as too expensive and unrealistic, and its members have spearheaded a successful push to put realignment work on hold.
Japan followed suit by crafting a budget plan this month that would greatly reduce its funding for the U.S. military buildup on Guam, including the construction of military housing and upgrades to the island’s public utilities, all of which are tied to the Futenma relocation plan. It would also cut any spending on the relocation of Futenma during the upcoming fiscal year.
Japan is footing the bill for moving the air station and if the budget is passed by parliament, it will mean no funds for construction work until at least April 2013.