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Japanese gov't prevented from environmental inspections on US bases since FY2014

The U.S. Navy base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, is pictured on Jan. 12, 2017. (Mainichi)

The Environment Ministry has not been able to conduct on-site environmental inspections of U.S. military bases in Japan since fiscal 2014, and Okinawa Prefecture, where the majority of U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated, is calling for the inspections to be resumed.

It is believed that an agreement reached by the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee -- which comprises Japanese bureaucrats and U.S. military officials and meets regularly to discuss the implementation of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement -- has resulted in the Japanese Environment Ministry not being able to carry out environmental inspections. The ministry, however, has refused to release the contents of the discussions that led to the current state of affairs, keeping the public in the dark.

The environmental inspections began in fiscal 1978, after Okinawa reverted to Japan in 1972, and a slew of environmental pollution cases originating with U.S. military bases emerged. They were administered based on a plan agreed upon by the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee, and provided the only opportunity for Japan to regularly monitor water and air quality on U.S. military bases. If pollution was confirmed, the Japanese government put in a request for countermeasures with the Joint Committee. In the case of Okinawa, the Japanese government has commissioned the prefectural government to carry out tests on discharged water.

In fiscal 2012, coliform bacteria counts exceeding environmental standards were detected at a sewage treatment plant at Okuma Rest Center, a recreational facility for military employees and their families in the northern Okinawa Prefecture village of Kunigami, and in fiscal 2013, in a drainage ditch at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan.

In a case separate from the environmental inspections, a fuel leakage at Yokota U.S. Air Base in 1993 spanning several municipalities in western Tokyo led to soil pollution.

In fiscal 2013, in the last on-site environmental inspections the Environment Ministry conducted, the ministry surveyed eight U.S. military facilities in Okinawa Prefecture, including Futenma Air Base, and six U.S. military facilities on the mainland, including Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture. From fiscal 2014 onward, the ministry has continued to test areas surrounding U.S. military bases, including rivers and gutters. "We will make sure that our inspections are comparable to past on-site inspections by taking creative survey measures," the ministry's Environmental Management Bureau chief, Teruyoshi Hayamizu, explains.

Meanwhile, the Okinawa Prefectural Government's Environmental Protection Section says it received notice from the Environment Ministry that it was unable to secure the agreement of the U.S. military to continue on-site environmental inspections. "Contaminated water gets diluted as it flows through rivers inside military bases. Testing samples outside of the bases doesn't have much meaning," an official with the prefectural section says, calling for the resumption of on-site inspections.

In September 2015, the Agreement to Supplement the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement on Environmental Stewardship was signed, which allows Japan wide access to land that is set to be returned from the U.S. to Japan in about seven months or less. But the supplementary agreement only stipulates that the U.S. will otherwise give "all due consideration" to requests for on-site inspections in the case that an environmental incident occurs, but does not guarantee that Japan will be given periodic access to military facilities.

"It is crucial that Japan does on-site environmental inspections of U.S. military facilities, instead of leaving it to the U.S. military to do," argues Yutaka Tashiro, a Meio University professor of environmental science who conducts environmental tests in areas surrounding U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture.

The fact that the on-site environmental inspections had been halted came to light through a freedom of information request submitted to the Okinawa Prefectural Government by the Okinawa-based investigative organization, the Informed-Public Project (IPP). "Japan has been stripped of its important right to access military facilities, and this amounts to a regression in environmental policy," says IPP director Masami Kawamura. "It is also problematic that neither the central Japanese government nor the Okinawa Prefectural Government released this information, despite it having a great deal to do with the lives of local residents."

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