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Editorial: Japan's disposal of US military's toxic water at own cost doesn't solve issue

Waste generated by U.S. military facilities should be disposed of at those facilities' own risk and expense. It is unreasonable for the Japanese government to shoulder the disposal costs.

    The U.S. Marines have been dumping water containing the toxic substances perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) -- kept at their Air Station Futenma base in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture -- directly into the public sewer system after reducing the compounds' concentration.

    Japan will collect approximately 360,000 liters of the remaining contaminated water and outsource it to a private company for disposal, which will apparently cost about 92 million yen (approx. $829,000). It is the first time the Japanese government will shoulder such costs.

    The Ministry of Defense described it as an "urgent interim measure" to prevent contaminated water from spilling out of underground water tanks due to heavy rains and polluting the environment.

    The U.S. Marines dumped some 64,000 liters of the contaminated water into the local sewer system on Aug. 26, even as the Japanese and U.S. governments were in talks over disposal methods and despite a demand from Okinawa Prefecture that the U.S. military desist from the practice. U.S. military officials had emphasized that the concentration per liter of PFOS and other substances would be lowered well below Japanese government limits for tap water.

    However, when the Ginowan Municipal Government tested the sewage emanating from the Marine air base on the day the contaminated water was dumped, it reportedly found levels of the chemicals more than 13 times higher than the central government-set maximum.

    Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki described the central government's response as "a step forward" to alleviate anxiety among local residents. However, many problems remain.

    The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) contains no provisions on the Japanese government shouldering such disposal costs. Though the response is reportedly based on provisions to offer and manage facilities for the U.S. military under the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense, is such expenditure appropriate?

    Such a response must never be taken again. The central government should demand that the U.S. military take responsibility and dispose of the contaminated water in accordance with Japanese regulations.

    High concentrations of PFOS and PFOA have also been detected around other U.S. military facilities. But the Japanese and local governments do not know how much contaminated water is stored, or how it is being treated.

    On-site inspections of such facilities were legally stipulated when SOFA's Environment Supplementary Agreement came into effect six years ago. However, they are only allowed in the case of a serious accident, and must have approval from the U.S. The hurdle for carrying out on-site inspections is therefore high.

    Japan must create a mechanism to prevent the U.S. military from unilaterally dumping contaminated water again. The central government must respond to the concerns of residents and demand that the U.S. military disclose information on environmental issues and improve on-site inspections.

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