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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Events in a federal courtroom in San Francisco could delay the planned move of some 8,000 Okinawa-based Marines and their families to Guam by 2014.

A federal judge heard closing arguments in U.S. District Court of Northern California Monday on a suit filed in 2003 by a coalition of U.S. and Japanese conservation groups seeking to force the Department of Defense to conduct its own study of the effects of building a new air facility on Camp Schwab to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The suit, dubbed “Okinawa Dugong vs. Donald Rumsfeld,” argues that any construction of a military airport that would extend into the shallow waters of Oura Bay would damage the feeding ground of the Okinawa dugong, a saltwater manatee.

Environmentalists claim the construction would violate the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act.

Besides being declared an endangered species, the dugong is classified as a “natural monument” by Japan and the environmentalists argue the U.S. law requires the U.S. government to conduct an environmental impact study before embarking on a project that could affect historically significant areas.

They say the 1966 Historic Preservation Act covers culturally significant areas in the United States and abroad where U.S. facilities are involved.

Justice Department lawyers maintain dugongs are not historic property and the United States had no say in selecting the site in rural northeastern Okinawa.

According to a bilateral realignment agreement signed in May 2006, relocating Marine air operations to northeast Okinawa is the key to eventually transferring the III Marine Expeditionary Force command element, 3rd Marine Division Headquarters, 3rd Marine Logistics Group Headquarters, 1st Marine Air Wing Headquarters and the 12th Marine Regiment Headquarters to Guam.

Last month Japan’s Ministry of the Environment placed the dugongs on its “Red List” of most endangered animals. Fewer than 50 dugongs are believed to visit Okinawa waters.

“What’s at stake here is whether the U.S. military respects the cultural values the people of Okinawa have placed on the dugong and dugong habitat,” said Martin Wagner, a lawyer for the conservation groups.

Justice Department lawyers assert that applying the U.S. environmental law to the project “would compel unwarranted interference in foreign affairs,” according to a brief filed with the court.

The judge will issue a ruling at a later date.

Her decision could affect the move of Marines to Guam, a recent General Accountability Office report on the U.S. military buildup on Guam noted.

“Various planning variables need to fall into place in order for the initiative to move forward,” the report, released Sept. 12, states.

“DOD officials expect that if the Futenma replacement facility in Okinawa (a facility intended to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and estimated to cost from $4 billion to $5 billion) is not built, the Marine Corps relocation to Guam may be delayed,” the report states. “DOD officials view the success of the Futenma replacement facility as a key objective that will need to be completed in order for other realignment actions to take place.”


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