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Japan gov't footing bill for US F-16 fighter fuel tank cleanup in Aomori Pref. lake

Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel and U.S. troops (in light green uniforms) are seen on March 5, 2018 using a net to recover fragments of external fuel tanks dropped into Lake Ogawara by a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter in February, in Tohoku, Aomori Prefecture. (Mainichi)

The cost of dealing with fragments of two external fuel tanks a U.S. military jet dropped into a frozen Aomori Prefecture lake last month are being borne by Japan, which begs the question: Why is this country on the hook for a U.S. mishap?

On Feb. 20, a U.S. F-16 fighter plane stationed at Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, jettisoned its two under-wing fuel tanks over Lake Ogawara after the aircraft's engine caught fire. The fuel tanks broke apart, and Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) divers have been collecting the fragments since Feb. 21, sometimes breaking through the lake ice to search for the pieces beneath. U.S. personnel have also joined the operation. According to the Defense Ministry's Tohoku Defense Bureau, some 90 percent of the tank fragments have been recovered and returned to the U.S. military.

Mayor Koji Ebina of the town of Tohoku, where Lake Ogawara is located, had requested U.S. forces to quickly clean up the fuel tanks the day the distressed F-16 had dumped them. However, the U.S. military told the town that Misawa Air Base did not have the capability to deal with the tanks. Ebina also consulted with the Tohoku Defense Bureau, which told the mayor that personnel attached to the MSDF's Ominato district unit could do the job.

The town government then requested the Aomori Prefectural Government to ask for disaster relief based on the Self-Defense Forces Act. The U.S. military also submitted a request for Japanese assistance to deal with the fuel tanks, and the Defense Ministry dispatched the MSDF personnel as the situation was deemed to fulfill the three conditions for SDF disaster help: public interest, urgency, and lack of any viable alternative.

The Defense Ministry holds that the risk of jet fuel from the tanks spreading in the lake required a quick response, and thus it had no choice but to deploy the MSDF unit as a disaster relief measure. However, under the Basic Act on Disaster Control Measures, this meant that the SDF was on the hook for the cleanup cost. Regarding why Japan was picking up the bill for a U.S. military mistake, the ministry stated that there is "no foundation (in the disaster control law) for requesting the U.S. military to cover the cost."

There is also a significant possibility that the Japanese government will be forced to pay at least a portion of compensation to people connected with the Lake Ogawara fishing industry, after fishing on the lake was suspended due to the fuel tank dump. The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) dictates that the United States has to pay up to 75 percent of any compensation to third parties stemming from accidents involving its forces, even if the fault lies entirely with the U.S. military. The Japanese government is liable for the rest.

To qualify for U.S. compensation, however, the causal relationship between U.S. military actions and damages suffered must be proven, and one senior Defense Ministry official revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun that "the U.S. may not want to admit the necessity of a fishing ban as well as any losses caused by the decision since the spilled fuel is highly volatile."

In fact, a U.S. military aircraft dumped a fuel tank into Lake Ogawara once before, in 1992. The then Defense Agency reportedly paid a total of about 8 million yen to locals not as official compensation, but as "sympathy money." The Lake Ogawara fisheries cooperative also demanded a loading and unloading facility be built on the shore. A compromise was reached, and the government covered nearly 70 percent of the cost, or some 80 million yen.

"We consented to that then, but this time nothing will be settled without official compensation," said a 77-year-old former fishing cooperative executive. A 62-year-old basket clam gatherer noted that the fishing suspension had cut off their income of about 300,000 yen per month. "Without compensation, I won't have enough money to live," the gatherer said.

A senior Defense Ministry official said the cost to the public purse was "for the U.S. commitment to defend Japan as laid out under the Japan-U.S. security treaty."

All the Japanese government can do about the several U.S. Forces Japan mishaps in recent months is request measures to prevent a recurrence -- a stance that has led critics such as Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga to lambast Tokyo as "lacking any capacity as a concerned party." This has left the Defense Ministry stuck in the middle, torn between the local governments hosting U.S. bases and the armed forces of Japan's greatest ally, the United States.

Regarding the engine trouble that led the F-16 to drop its fuel tanks, Misawa Air Base issued a statement declaring that there are no structural faults with the fighter model, and that the Feb. 20 incident was due to a problem specific to the aircraft involved. That being the case, the base's F-16s have continued to fly as normal.

One Lake Ogawara clam gatherer, looking up as a U.S. fighter zoomed overhead, commented, "I really understand why Okinawans are angry."

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