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Fishing banned on Aomori Pref. lake where US jet dumped fuel tanks

Lake Ogawara, which is outlined, and Misawa Air Base are seen from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on Feb. 20, 2018. The X mark shows the spot where the fuel tanks fell. (Mainichi)
This image taken from the U.S. Air Force website shows an F-16 fighter jet, the same type that dumped its external fuel tanks into Lake Ogawara.

TOHOKU, Aomori -- The local fisheries cooperative here has decided to halt all fishing activities on Lake Ogawara after a U.S. fighter jet dumped external fuel tanks into the lake following an engine fire on the morning of Feb. 20. The restrictions will remain in place until the U.S. military collects the discarded tanks and oil debris.

An F-16 fighter jet stationed at Misawa Air Base in the Aomori Prefecture city of Misawa discarded two external fuel tanks into Lake Ogawara after an engine caught fire at around 8:40 a.m., when fishing boats were out on the lake catching basket clams.

Local fishers are furious over the incident. Fisherman Masahiko Yamada, 52, who was in the water at the time, a short distance away from his boat, angrily commented, "If the tanks had hit my boat, they would have killed my wife."

Yamada heard the blast of a jet flying above him when he was in the water catching the clams. The next thing he knew, he saw a splash about 15 meters high about 500 meters in front of him. His wife was sorting out basket clams on the boat right nearby. He was in shock, saying that he thought the splash was some kind of illusion.

According to the Lake Ogawara fisheries cooperative, the tanks fell into water off the southern shore of the lake, piercing a roughly 1-centimeter-thick layer of ice. Five to six boats were operating nearby at the time. Fisheries cooperative official Hiroki Numata says metallic debris believed to be tank parts were scattered all over the ice and oil was visible in the water. Yamada, who accompanied the U.S. military during their on-site inspection, said he saw a hole about 15 meters in diameter on the ice and sensed a strong oily smell.

Due to the possibility of a fuel spill, all 385 kilograms of basket clams caught on the southern side of the lake that day were discarded, and it was decided that clam fishing, as well as fishing for Japanese "wakasagi" smelt and icefish, would be halted for the time being. Lake Ogawara is the country's top fishing ground for wakasagi smelt and icefish.

Tohoku Mayor Koji Ebina demanded to the U.S. commander at the Misawa base on Feb. 20 that the U.S. military take measures to prevent a recurrence and collect the tanks at an early date, calling the incident "a serious one that could have been life-threatening." There are concerns that the fishing ban could be prolonged. Local fisherman Satoru Hirata, 58, who was catching basket clams near the site, expressed concerns, saying that he might have to look for second job if the fishing restriction continues.

According to the Japanese Defense Ministry and other sources, F-16 external fuel tanks are normally attached underneath the main wing, each measuring roughly 4.5 meters long and about 1 meter wide. An empty tank weighs about 215 kilograms and can carry up to around 1,400 liters of fuel.

The main component of fighter jet fuel is kerosene, which is made from distilled petroleum. When there is a problem mid-flight, the jets usually ditch external tanks to prevent fires and make the aircraft lighter. The ministry is set to carry out an on-site investigation and is mulling compensation for damage.

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