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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The U.S. military has commissioned a survey to gauge the environmental impact of replacing CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters on Okinawa with tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey aircraft.

The survey, which involves field studies of plants and animals in areas where the Osprey is likely to operate on Okinawa and mainland Japan, will be finished by March 2012, III Marine Expeditionary Force media relations officer 1st Lt. Lindsay Pirek said Thursday.

Okinawans have been voicing concerns about the potential impact the Osprey could have on their environment since the plan to bring the aircraft to Okinawa was announced in June.

The island’s prefectural assembly complained in July that the Osprey was “dangerous” and “defective” and would increase problems with noise at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, where they are slated to replace the Vietnam-era Sea Knight beginning in 2012 or 2013 as part of a service-wide overhaul. The assembly unanimously passed a resolution asking the U.S. to abandon the Osprey plans.

The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and fly like an airplane, had a rocky development period in the 1990s that included at least two deadly crashes. But according to Navy Air Systems Command and the Navy Safety Center, it has racked up the lowest number of severe aviation accidents of any Marine Corps aircraft in the past 10 years and recently passed 100,000 hours of flight time after being deployed to Iraq in 2007 and later to Afghanistan.

On Thursday, Japan’s Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae presented Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima with a written reply to questions Nakaima had submitted about the Osprey plan.

“At this point, I have no alternative but to oppose to the plan,” Nakaima told Nakae. “From what we understand, the aircraft generates tremendous dust as it makes a landing. The Northern Training Area (where Ospreys are expected to operate) is a veritable treasure house of rare species.”

The firm conducting the environmental impact survey will prepare a report assessing the aircraft’s impact on land use, air quality, noise, safety, biology and local culture, Pirek said.

Areas on Okinawa that the survey will focus on include land earmarked for the Futenma Replacement Facility, Kadena Air Base, Camp Butler and nearby landing zones at the Central and North training areas and Ie Jima Training Facility, she said.

On mainland Japan the survey will look at Camp Fuji, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and U.S. Department of Defense-controlled military training routes, she said.

The firm conducting the survey will also review relevant literature and interview Osprey pilots, Pirek said but added: “They are not bringing Ospreys out here (as part of the survey).”

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