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Japan gov't has paid nearly 13 bil. yen since FY 2003 on Okinawa US base land cleanup

The soccer field built on land returned from Kadena Air Base where metallic barrels contaminated with dioxins were discovered and where surveys to detect other pollutants are still ongoing is seen on Nov. 14, 2013. Background, left, is where the barrels were found. The base, in the background, right, spans the towns of Chatan and Kadena, and the city of Okinawa, in Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi/Satoshi Kusakabe)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has paid a total of some 12.9 billion yen so far for waste removal and building demolition on land returned by U.S. military forces in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, the Okinawa Defense Bureau of the Ministry of Defense has disclosed to the Mainichi Shimbun.

Under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the United States military is not responsible for restoring the land seized for military use to its original state before returning it to Japan. There is a possibility that the bureau's estimates of the total cost may swell even further, and many are calling for revisions to the SOFA, starting with environmental countermeasures.

The total cost of restoring former military land to its original state was obtained from the Okinawa Defense Bureau. The bureau also disclosed records of soil surveys and cleanup project works from the 2003 fiscal year -- the earliest year from which such records remain -- to August of this year. According to the list and an explanation from the bureau, soil testing was conducted at 19 facilities that were used and returned by U.S. forces to ascertain whether or not the grounds were contaminated with toxic materials. There were also expenditures in the records for the disposal of waste containing toxic substances like dioxins and asbestos, searches for metal items such as unexploded ordnances, the deconstruction of a golf course used by the U.S. military and other cleanup projects.

At the Okinawa City Soccer Field, which was built on land returned from Kadena Air Base, a large number of metallic drum barrels were discovered underground in 2013, and they were confirmed to have levels of dioxins higher than the standard. The government spent some 1.1 billion yen to survey the toxic materials and dispose of them along with other activities.

At Camp Kuwae in the town of Chatan on the western side of central Okinawa Island, asbestos and other toxic chemicals as well as a fuel tank were discovered on the grounds after the land was returned to Japan in 2003. The processing of contaminated soil and the removal of the tank along with other cleanup activities set Japan back roughly 1.7 billion yen.

A law enacted in 1995 clarifies that the Japanese government must carry out all activities to restore land that was used by U.S. forces to its original state. The government investigates the state of soil and groundwater contamination; the existence of explosives, including unexploded ordnances, as well as waste; and any building or facility that was previously used by the U.S. military forces in Okinawa, and then do the required cleanup before handing the land back to its owner.

However, with repeated cases of environmental contamination discovered on land in Okinawa returned by the U.S. military to Japan in recent years, the Okinawa Prefectural Government is calling for a new environmental stipulation to be added to the SOFA to place the responsibility for land restoration measures on the United States.

--- US shoulders restoration costs in other countries

There are examples of the U.S. military shouldering the cost of cleanup in other countries. A report of a survey compiled in October this year by a special council of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations' Human Rights Protection Committee revealed that an agreement made with Germany and the militaries of other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries including the U.S. states that military authorities are to avoid damaging the environment, and in the case that damage cannot be avoided, the militaries must take appropriate measures. In principle, U.S. military bases are also subject to German national laws, unlike in Japan, and there are reportedly examples of the U.S. government paying for the cleanup of land.

Professor emeritus at Okinawa University Kunitoshi Sakurai, who specializes in environmental issues, explained that in the case of the arrangement between the U.S. and South Korea, the South Korean government evaluates the condition of land contamination and the U.S. shoulders the cost of any cleanup.

While in reality, there are many cases where the U.S. government claims that the status of the land does not meet the conditions and refuses to pay, "there is a certain recognition on the part of the South Korean government that the U.S. has some degree of responsibility to restore (former military land) to its original environmental state," he pointed out.

"The U.S.-Japan SOFA, which exempts the U.S. from responsibility for environmental contamination, easily creates a moral hazard," Sakurai said, referring to the phenomenon in which a party gets into a situation knowing that it is protected against risks, because even if something goes wrong, someone or something else will incur the cost. "In order to motivate the U.S. forces to curb environmental contamination, the actual state of such pollution and responsibility for it must also be made clear."

(Japanese original by Tamami Kawakami, City News Department)

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