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20 years on, residents set to return 'garbage island' in western Japan to pristine state

The former pollution site on the island of Teshima off the coast of Kagawa Prefecture which was subject to the illegal dumping of industrial waste is shown in this photo taken on June 2, 2020. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

TONOSHO, Kagawa -- Twenty years after reaching a settlement over one of Japan's biggest cases of illegal dumping, residents of a western Japan island once known as the "island of garbage" are taking their first step toward recovery and turning their land back into its original beautiful state.

June 6 marks exactly 20 years since residents of Teshima, an island off the coast of Kagawa Prefecture, reached a settlement with the prefecture over the illegal dumping of industrial waste totaling some 913,000 metric tons.

In the west part of the island where the pollution occurred, there still lies an area of bare, exposed dirt that stretches over some 285,000 square meters. Benzene and other toxic chemicals have been detected from this area's groundwater in amounts largely exceeding the permitted standard. The Kagawa Prefectural Government aims to bring the levels down to standard figures for the drained groundwater, and remove underground walls that have intercepted the flow of contaminated water into the ocean by March 2023 -- the deadline under a law permitting financial support from the national government for industrial pollution-related cases.

Masses of toxic industrial waste consisting of shredded solid waste of scrapped vehicles, waste oil, mud and the like were illegally brought into the island from the early 1980s onward, by waste disposal contractors with permission from the prefecture. Residents of Teshima, which later became known as an "island of garbage," repeatedly insisted that the contractor's actions infringed upon the law, but the prefectural government did not address the issue, and the illegal dumping continued until Hyogo Prefectural Police brought accusations against the contractor in 1990.

The former site of illegal dumping in the Kagawa Prefecture island of Teshima can be seen in this June 2, 2020 photo, with a resource center documenting the pollution issue shown in the foreground. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

In 1993, residents of the island filed a pollution settlement request against Kagawa Prefecture and other parties for neglecting surveillance of the waste disposal contractor. The case was settled in 2000. The prefecture issued an apology and became obligated to remove all industrial waste that was dumped on the island. During the 16-year cleanup period that started in 2003, a total of some 913,000 tons of garbage were removed.

At the time, the residents of Teshima had been looking into ways to use the cleared lot of land to promote revitalization of the region, but the circumstances surrounding the island have changed since the settlement was reached 20 years ago.

Due to a low birthrate and aging, the island's population has decreased by half from about 1,400 people at the time of the settlement request to 782 people as of May 1 of this year. A committee of residents discussing industrial waste issues submitted a written request to Kagawa Prefecture last October asking that all walls intercepting the flow of contaminated water be removed and that the coastal area be restored to its original state with the help of nature instead of artificial forces.

Shozo Aki, a resident leader who has strived toward the island's recovery, is pictured near the former pollution site of Teshima where purification of groundwater still continues in this photo taken on June 2, 2020. He looks back on the past 20 years since a settlement was reached between residents of the island and the Kagawa Prefectural Government. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

The former pollution site is located within the specially designated area of Setonaikai National Park, where land development activities are restricted to preserve nature. Residents of the island shared this same wish of bringing back the beautiful beach with scenery of white sands and green pines without human intervention, even if it takes some time.

A panel of experts set up by the prefecture that has discussed ways to dispose of groundwater in the former dumping site, among other issues, decided that it would also discuss specific methods regarding maintenance of the coastal area while listening to the opinions of specialists.

Shozo Aki, 69, who has led fellow residents in social movements regarding the pollution issue for many years, commented, "Residents here stood up to confront this issue merely with the hope of bringing back a beautiful island. I would like to see to it that the island's appearance becomes a source of pride, even for future generations."

Looking back on the past 20 years, Aki remarked, "Once a land is destructed and polluted, a massive amount of time and energy is needed for it to recover. I would like for the national government to use this as a lesson so no more land ends up like Teshima in the future."

(Japanese original by Toshiyuki Suzuki, Science & Environment News Department and Yukinao Kin, Takamatsu Bureau)

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