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Friday, Aug. 22, 2008

Foreigners fear for haven

Planned waste site near rural getaway worries longtime vacationers


Staff writer

Lake Nojiri, a renowned summer resort in the town of Shinano, northern Nagano Prefecture, has long been a spiritual home to foreigners in Japan.

News photo
Summer camp: Lifeguards watch children swim at Lake Nojiri in August 2001. COURTESY OF THE NOJIRI LAKE ASSOCIATION PHOTO

Hundreds of non-Japanese spend two to three weeks every summer in some 250 cabins built by the lake. Most are members of the Nojiri Lake Association, or Kokusai Mura (International Village), founded by missionaries from the United Sates and Canada in 1921.

The association members, made up of 250 families, have to buy a cabin — ¥5 million is the maximum price — from existing owners.

Their children swim, take in musicals and engage in other recreational activities in the area.

But Akane Jensen, 62, a former association chairwoman and retired international-school teacher living in Tokyo, is worried about pollution encroaching on their rural haven.

A Nagano waste management firm, Takamisawa Corp., plans to set up an industrial and household waste-disposal facility some 2 km north of Lake Nojiri, near the Niigata Prefecture border.

"We (association members) live on well water. Underground water may get contaminated. Nojiri Lake, where children swim every day, may get contaminated," Jensen said. "The plan affects our life dramatically."

She believes the association is facing one of the biggest crises in its 87-year history, a span during which generations of Japan's foreign community have come to regard the lake as the "home of their heart."

She is a third-generation member and has been vacationing in her family's cabin since she was 6 months old. Her daughter, who works in California's Napa Valley, does not come home to Tokyo but to their Lake Nojiri cabin every summer, Jensen said.

"Many other people who went back to their home countries in America or Europe come back to Nojiri Lake every summer with children," she said. "The place has a special sentimental value, and we must protect it."

Jensen's concern is shared by local residents.

On Monday, 13 groups, including her association, farmers from Nagano and Niigata, and others who own summer resort villas near the lake, handed a petition to Nagano Gov. Jin Murai asking him not to give Takamisawa permission to build the waste-disposal facility.

Tetsunori Nakayama, a Nagano prefectural official in the division in charge of waste, said the governor will "consider the matter."

But it is likely the prefecture will let Takamisawa, which has not yet formally applied for permission, proceed with its plan.

"Until lately, we (customarily) urged (waste-handling companies) to obtain residents' support. But in February we enacted an ordinance" that requires such companies only to have a meeting with residents to solicit support, Nakayama said.

The prefecture plans for the ordinance to go into effect by March, he said.

Waste-handling companies are encouraged to address residents' concerns, but the prefecture will basically approve a project as long as it meets Environment Ministry standards, he said.

The Waste Disposal and Public Cleaning Law, which local authorities refer to when deciding on ecologically controversial facilities, does not stipulate that resident approval is necessary, said Kenichi Watanabe, an official in the Environment Ministry's Industrial Waste Management Division.

To be sure, Takamisawa's plan is not unusual. In the 47 prefectures, there were 2,335 waste-disposal facilities as of April 2006, Watanabe said.

Takamisawa's facility would have one of the most environmentally sound designs, company official Tsutomu Yamakawa claimed.

The facility will only accept waste that has chemical levels within the Environment Ministry's standard, he said. It will take in ash and tiny pieces of plastic and glass, mix them with cement and bury the hardened chunks under soil.

The company will use two layers of waterproof sheets to line the burial site to prevent seepage, and the site will be covered so that any acid picked up by rain doesn't reach and erode the cement chunks.

Organic waste will not be accepted because it can reek, Yamakawa said. The burial site will have a capacity of 240,000 cu. meters, which the company estimates will be filled in eight years.

Yasuhiro Matsui, an associate professor of waste management at Okayama University, said that Takamisawa's methods — cementing waste and protecting it from rain — are the "highest level in terms of environmental care" and that it is unlikely Lake Nojiri or its groundwater will be contaminated if the facility is built at the planned site.

Waste-disposal facilities usually bury ash in soil lined by waterproof sheeting, but don't bother to cement the waste or cover the site, Matsui said. When water containing dissolved ash gathers at the bottom of the site, it is removed and pumped into sewers or rivers. The water is supposed to meet water drainage standards set by the Environment Ministry before it is dumped.

The city of Komoro, Nagano Prefecture, has two waste-disposal facilities that use the cementing method. The sites are owned by waste management companies Fuji Corp. and E-Stage Co.

As the prefecture recommends, Takamisawa held meetings with local residents on Aug. 5 and 11.

"As the site is near Lake Nojiri and a park, we are doing everything we can to minimize its impact on water," Yamakawa said.



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