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Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009

HOT BUTTON HENOKO

Clock ticking on base, its delicate environment


Staff writer

Second of two parts

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — There are many reasons why the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the shores of Camp Schwab on the Henoko Peninsula in northern Okinawa Island remains stalled.

News photo
Contentious cape: Camp Schwab and nearby waters, where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is to be relocated on filled-in land, is seen from the air Oct. 13. KYODO PHOTO

Key among them is the debate over the environmental impact the facility would have on the surrounding air, land and sea.

Last week, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima released his opinion on the results of a preliminary environmental study on what building the Futenma replacement facility would mean for life underneath the flight paths of the two planned runways, designed in a V pattern.

That life includes coral reef colonies in the bay that will be affected by the filled-in area off the cape to accommodate the runways and marine species in surrounding waters, particularly the endangered dugong, now the symbol of an international campaign to block construction of the facility.

Nakaima's opinion contained strong criticism of the methodology used by the central government in carrying out the study. Nakaima also expressed support for inking a formal agreement with the U.S. that would set how low approaching aircraft can fly over surrounding communities, for ensuring that the new facility in the bay does minimal damage to the coral reefs, and for possibly establishing a dugong sanctuary.

Much of the governor's language indicated he felt the initial environmental assessment was incomplete and had been a rush job. But Nakaima also suggested that despite his criticism he would be willing to accept the facility if his environmental concerns are addressed.

The environmental assessment of the bay around Henoko that is required before filling in the land for the two runways can start has political and environmental components.

Japan and the United States are now nervously watching the clock, as closing Futenma and relocating its aircraft operations to Henoko is the centerpiece of a broader 2006 realignment on reorganizing the U.S. forces in Japan.

The Henoko airfield is supposed to be operational by 2014. Its delay, postponement or cancellation would impact other terms of the agreement, particularly the downsizing of the Marine Corps presence in the prefecture.

While construction preparations within Camp Schwab, which will essentially be expanded out into the bay under the plan, are moving forward, there is no visible sign on the beaches or surrounding bay that work to start the landfill has begun.

The consensus in Okinawa, as well as among many Japanese and U.S. officials involved in the relocation issue, is that even if the Democratic Party of Japan-led coalition government had come to power highly supportive of the new facility, completing it by 2014 would still be a logistic impossibility. But Nakaima disagrees.

"I think there is still time to meet the 2014 deadline, but the central government has to quickly decide what to do," Nakaima said Oct. 13.

Environmental activists have long opposed the new facility, arguing that its presence and subsequent pollution will damage the coral reefs and mangrove forests, and threaten the local dugongs and sea turtles, not to mention disrupt currents.

The activists have also warned local residents that despite earlier assurances from Tokyo and Okinawa politicians, including Nakaima, noise pollution from aircraft will be a problem.

On the eve of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' visit to Japan, the nation's media reported Sunday from Washington that the U.S. is now willing to consider relocating the Henoko runways farther out on the cape in an apparent effort to placate those who worry about noise pollution.

But altering the plans to fill in deeper areas of the sea raises even more questions about the effect on the marine environment, creating a whole new set of environmental, logistic and political headaches for Tokyo, Washington and Okinawa.

In 2003, environmental protesters took their cause to the United States, filing a case in San Francisco Federal Court that named the Okinawan dugong as the primary plaintiff, along with Okinawa residents and environmental conservation groups in the U.S. and Japan.

The court eventually ruled against the Pentagon, which was named as the defendant. The judge ordered the Defense Department to follow U.S. laws under the National Historic Preservation Act when it came to preparing environmental conservation measures for the Henoko facility.

The San Francisco case was notable not only for its ruling but also for bringing to light U.S. plans for the Henoko facility that include building a 214-meter-long seaport.

That revelation raised questions in Okinawa over whether the U.S. will push Japan, which is responsible for the landfill project, to build a large port to accommodate ships, turning Henoko into something other than a simple replacement facility for landlocked Futenma. In the 2006 gubernatorial election, Nakaima told voters he would not let that happen.

The demands for adjustments in the Henoko plan on the part of Nakaima because of noise pollution concerns in particular created worries in the U.S. about the operational viability of the new facility.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2010 (beginning next April). Contained within the act is a section that prohibits the secretary of defense from accepting, or authorizing any other Defense Department official to accept, a Futenma replacement facility unless the secretary certifies to Congress that the replacement facility satisfies minimal naval aviation safety requirements.

"The passage of the act puts congressional pressure on U.S. Defense Secretary Gates to force Japan to negotiate with Okinawan officials over things like overfly routes and minimum altitudes, negotiations that the central government is unlikely to undertake with any sense of urgency, and in which Nakaima has little room to compromise, given the antibase sentiment," said one Japan-based U.S. official familiar with the report.

Often caught in the middle of the political and environmental struggles over the Futenma issue are the marines stationed in Okinawa. They face routine public complaints over the noise generated by their aircraft operations.

Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, director of the marines public affairs office at Camp Foster, said marines in Okinawa engage in 1,500 public relations activities a year. To save money, Congress also recently instituted a policy of having most U.S. service members deployed abroad, and their dependents, reside in base housing.

"The new policy will save between $30 million and $50 million annually and we're aiming to have nearly all military personnel and their families on-base," Powell said.

Such efforts to be good guests, as Powell said, while welcomed by large numbers of Okinawa citizens and by those businesses that benefit from the U.S. military presence, are now overshadowed by the environmental concerns over constructing the Henoko base and, by extension, the larger political question of just how large the U.S. military presence in Okinawa should be, or if there should be one at all.

The specific debates over how marine life will be affected if the Henoko base is built are a pretext to larger discussions about how U.S. Marine Corps life in Okinawa will be affected.



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