Okinawa: the junk heap of the Pacific

from The Japan Times: In June, construction workers unearthed more than 20 rusty barrels
from beneath a soccer pitch in Okinawa City.
The land had once been part
of Kadena Air Base — the Pentagon’s largest installation in the Pacific
— but was returned to civilian usage in 1987. Tests revealed
that the barrels contained two ingredients of military defoliants used
in the Vietnam War: the herbicide 2,4,5-T and 2,3,7,8,-TCDD dioxin.
Levels of the highly toxic TCDD in nearby water measured 280 times the
safe limit.

The Pentagon has repeatedly denied storing of defoliants — including
Agent Orange — on Okinawa. Following the discovery, it distanced itself
from the barrels; a spokesperson said the Defense Department was
investigating whether they had been buried after the land’s return in
1987, and a U.S. government-sponsored scientist suggested they may
merely have contained kitchen or medical waste. 

However, the conclusions
of the Japanese and international scientific community were
unequivocal: Not only did the barrels disprove Pentagon denials of the
presence of military defoliants in Japan, but the polluted land also
posed a threat to the health of local residents and required immediate

The Pentagon is the largest polluter on the planet, producing more
toxic waste than the top three U.S. chemical manufacturers combined.
2008, 25,000 of its properties within the U.S. were found to be
contaminated, and more than 100 of these were classified by the
Environmental Protection Agency as Superfund sites, meaning they
warranted urgent cleanup.

Although Okinawa’s main island hosts more than 30 U.S. bases — taking
up 20 percent of its land — there has never been a concerted attempt to
investigate levels of contamination within them. Unlike other nations
with U.S. bases, such as South Korea and Germany, the Japanese
government has no effective powers to conduct environmental checks; nor
does the Pentagon have a duty to disclose to the public any
contamination that it knows exists.
To date, most incidents of pollution
have only become known when individual service members have divulged
details to the media or, as in the case of the barrels uncovered in
Okinawa City, the Japanese authorities have conducted tests following
the return of military land.

Despite their limited scope, such disclosures offer a disturbing
window into the contamination of Okinawa. Over the past seven decades,
the island’s sea, land and air have been contaminated with toxins
including arsenic, depleted uranium, nerve gas and carcinogenic
hexavalent chromium (see the accompanying timeline below)
. These substances
have poisoned Okinawan civilians and U.S. troops alike — and it is
highly probable that they are damaging the health of those living on the
island today. But, regardless of these risks, the Pentagon continues to
do everything it can to evade responsibility for the damage its bases

The history of U.S. pollution on Okinawa is almost as long as its
ongoing military presence. Following the end of World War II, Okinawa
earned the nickname the “junk heap of the Pacific” due to the large
volume of surplus supplies abandoned there. During this period, one of
the first known instances of contamination occurred when eight residents
of Iheya village were killed by arsenic poisoning from a nearby U.S.
compound in 1947.

The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco granted the Pentagon full control of
Okinawa and, as the military seized large tracts of civilian land to
convert into bases, the dangers of pollution grew. Fuel leaks saturated
the ground, industrial-grade detergents flowed from runways into nearby
streams and solvents were flushed away without any regard to where they
ended up.

Although such lax environmental controls were common on U.S. military
bases all over the world at this time, Okinawa’s problems were
exacerbated by the geopolitical gray zone in which it existed.
Throughout the 1945-1972 U.S. occupation, the island was not protected
by American law or the Japanese Constitution, so the Pentagon stored
large stockpiles of chemical and atomic weapons there — and
nuclear-powered submarines made regular pit stops in Okinawa.

In September 1968, Japanese newspapers reported that radioactive
cobalt-60 had been detected in Naha Port — believed by scientists to
have emanated from visiting U.S. subs. Three Okinawan divers claimed to
have been sickened by their exposure to the substance, which accumulated
in mud at the bottom of the harbor.

The next year, the Wall Street Journal broke the news of a leak of
nerve gas at Chibana Ammunition Depot, near Kadena Air Base, that
hospitalized more than 20 U.S. service members. Precise details of the
subsequent mop-up operation remained hidden until July this year, when
U.S. veterans stationed on the island at the time described how tons of
the chemical munitions had been dumped off Okinawa’s coast (see “Exclusive: Red Hat’s lethal Okinawa smokescreen,
July 27). Experts estimate that the metal containers holding these
poisons corrode after 50 years, threatening the health of fishing crews
and coastal communities today.

During the Vietnam War, Okinawa served as the Pentagon’s primary
staging post for the conflict.
Led by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Logistics
Division, the military channeled the majority of its supplies —
including ammunition, coffins and, it now seems, Agent Orange — via the
island’s ports. This transportation was a two-way street: Surplus and
damaged materiel was also returned from the war zone to Okinawa for

In 1969, U.S. Army Chemical Corps 2nd Lt. Lindsay Peterson was the
officer in charge of these retrograde supplies at Hamby Open Storage
Area, central Okinawa. In a recent interview with The Japan Times, he
recalled how damaged barrels of Agent Orange were among chemicals
shipped to the island.

“Agent Orange was processed through the port at Naha and trucked to
the Hamby Open Storage Area,” he said. “When I arrived, there were
around 10,000 barrels. Most of them were leaking, so we had to empty
them into new 55-gallon [208-liter] drums.”

Peterson recalls how the re-drumming process saturated his crew with
defoliants. He is among hundreds of seriously ill U.S. veterans who
believe their sicknesses were caused by exposure to dioxin-tainted
defoliants while serving on Okinawa. Although the U.S. government has
refused to help the majority of these veterans, in 2008 it awarded
compensation to a former marine warehouseman suffering from Hodgkin’s
lymphoma and type-2 diabetes sparked by handling Agent
Orange-contaminated supplies brought back to Okinawa from the Vietnam
War in the early 1970s.

Other U.S. veterans and Okinawa civilians interviewed by The Japan
Times recall how surplus stocks of Agent Orange were sold on the black
market to local farmers who valued its potent weed-killing power.
risks of the unregulated sale of hazardous substances to those lacking
the necessary safety training became clear in 1971 when large volumes of
pentachlorophenol herbicides — obtained from the U.S. military by a
civilian company — were dumped in the Haebaru and Gushikami districts of
southern Okinawa. The chemicals leaked into Kokuba River and the water
supply to 30,000 people had to be halted; children attending local
schools suffered from abdominal pains and nausea.

U.S. government correspondence obtained by The Japan Times reveals
the reaction of the authorities to such pollution during this period. In
August 1975, following a leak of detergents containing poisonous
hexavalent chromium at Machinato Service Area, the U.S. consulate in
Naha sent a series of updates to the State Department in Washington.
Dismissing the spill as a “flap,” it concluded that “the newspapers and
the leftists will certainly make good use of this issue against us.”

In September 1974, the U.S. Consulate had displayed a similar tone
when Okinawa Gov. Chobyo Yara voiced his fears to the U.S. military that
its aging oil pipelines might leak. In a cable, the U.S. Consulate in
Naha brushed off the governor’s concerns, noting the “pipeline has now
been added to leftist catalogue of evils of U.S. base system.” A little
over a year later, in January 1976, Yara’s concerns were proven
justified when one of the pipelines spilled 14,000 gallons (53,000
liters) of diesel into a local river.

In the 1970s, the Pentagon showed more concern over potential PR
damage than the risk to human health; today, its stance toward the
discovery of the dioxin-contaminated barrels in Okinawa City seems
identical. Its denials attempt to protect its image of a good neighbor —
but in reality, they potentially sacrifice the health of local
Okinawans, its own service members and their dependents. Although the
Okinawa City dioxin site is located adjacent to two Department of
Defense schools, it appears that the parents and teachers there have not
been informed.

During the 1970s, such neglect could have been blamed on a lack of
environmental awareness. However, today in 2013, such a posture is
— reminiscent of the contamination of Camp Lejeune, North
Carolina, where tens of thousands of troops and family members were
exposed to toxins including pesticides, benzene and industrial solvents
between 1953 and 1987.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — the foundation, unchanged
since 1960, that spells out the rights and role of the U.S. military in
Japan — encourages the Pentagon’s cavalier approach to pollution. SOFA
absolves the U.S. of all financial responsibility for cleaning up land
it has contaminated and does not allow the Japanese authorities to
conduct spot-checks on U.S. military bases.

Given these constraints on access to U.S. installations, Japanese
scientists have been forced to improvise. Recently, experts from Ehime
and Meio universities conducted tests on seven mongooses whose habitat
included U.S. bases. Announced in August, the results showed the animals
were contaminated with high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) —
raising worries that humans living in the same areas may be poisoned,

Mongooses aside, the only alternative has been to conduct tests on
military land following its return to civilian control. As in the case
of Okinawa City, such checks often reveal dangerous levels of
contamination. In Yomitan village, for example, levels of arsenic 120
times over the legal limit were found on former U.S.-controlled land in
2008. In July this year, asbestos was discovered at a site that used to
be a part of Camp Courtney. In this case, the U.S. authorities appear to
have misled the civilian construction company tasked with the cleanup —
leading to the suspected exposure of Okinawan workers.

But even after pollution has been detected, the new problem arises of
how to deal with it. In September it was revealed that 322 tons of
PCB-laden slurry from former U.S. military land in Okinawa was to be
shipped for disposal to Iwaki city, Fukushima Prefecture — a
municipality located 50 km from the stricken No. 1 nuclear power
station. Critics of the plan accused the Japanese authorities of
exploiting the prefecture’s need for money and worsening its already
dire pollution problems.

In the coming years, it is likely such troubles will become more
pressing. In October, Japan’s minister of defense, Itsunori Onodera,
reiterated plans to concentrate the U.S. military presence in the
northern half of Okinawa Island — a move that will entail the closure of
several installations including Machinato Service Area, one of the main
bases where defoliants were allegedly stored, and, ultimately, Marine
Corps Air Station Futenma. Experts have estimated the cleanup of Futenma
at $600 million — but that was before the cost of Agent Orange
remediation had been figured into calculations.

Okinawa residents have long protested for a future with fewer bases.
But even after their wish becomes a reality, it seems the land they’ve
fought so hard to retrieve will be uninhabitable for years — if not
decades — to come.

U.S. military pollution in Okinawa: a timeline

1947: Arsenic contamination at base on Iheya Island kills eight Okinawans.
1968: Cobalt-60 leaks from nuclear-powered submarine visiting Naha Port.
1969: More than 20 U.S. service members sickened by
nerve gas at Chibana Ammunition Depot; following the accident, tons of
chemical weapons allegedly dumped off Okinawa’s coast (see “Exclusive: Red Hat’s lethal Okinawa smokescreen,” July 27).
1971: Surplus U.S. herbicides containing pentachlorophenol contaminate civilian water supplies in Haebaru and Gushikami districts.
1975: Large leak of hexavalent chromium at Machinato Service Area; contamination reportedly some 8,000 times safe standards.
1975: Spill of Vietnam War retrograde chemicals (including herbicides and pesticides) kills sea life near Camp Kinser.
1976: More than 50,000 liters of fuel leak into stream near Camp Foster.
1981: U.S. Marines unearth cache of over 100 barrels
(some suspected of containing Agent Orange) at Marine Corps Air Station
Futenma; top officers apparently hush up the incident (see “Agent Orange at base in ’80s: U.S. vet,” June 15, 2012).
1995/96: Iwakuni-based U.S. Marine jets fire more
than 1,500 shells of depleted uranium at and around Torishima island;
area subsequently declared off-limits due to radiation fears.
1996: Land returned to civilian usage on former Onna
Communication Site found to contain dangerous levels of mercury,
cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
2000: Japan attempts to ship overseas 100 tons of
PCBs from U.S. bases; vessel blocked from entry to Canada under
international laws banning export of toxic waste.
2002: Over 200 barrels containing unidentified tar-like substance unearthed on former military land in Chatan Town.
2003: High levels of lead and hexavalent chromium discovered on land in Chatan Town that was previously part of Camp Kuwae.
2007: Almost 9,000 liters of jet fuel leak on Kadena Air Base.
2013: More than 20 barrels of suspected Vietnam War
defoliants unearthed on soccer pitch in Okinawa City; authorities begin
to search field for more buried barrels.

SOURCE: The Japan Times

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