The release of contaminated water from Futenma Air Station into the local waters of Okinawa is a problem that affects the lives and health of people living near the base. It is imperative to have a process that allows for the Japanese and local government to monitor and regulate the storage and maintenance of toxic substances inside the base.
The United States military in Okinawa discharged polluted water containing organic fluorine compounds like PFOS* from Futenma into the public sewer system. According to the municipal government of Ginowan City, an investigation of the incident found the concentration of the chemicals to be 13 times the levels set by national regulations.
Organic fluorine compounds can remain in the environment for a long time without decomposing and, if consumed, accumulate in the human body. Because there are indications that PFOS could be carcinogenic, Japan banned the general production and use of them in 2010.
Originally, the chemicals were incinerated. However, this process takes time and money, so the U.S. military approached the Japanese and local governments about draining them into the sewage system. Despite opposition from the prefecture and city amid ongoing discussions, the military base unilaterally decided to drain the chemicals.
Moreover, the announcement to the prefecture came only 30 minutes before the military began the draining process.. Some 320 drums, about 64,000 liters (approximately 170 gallons) of the chemicals were released. We have to say that such high-handed behavior completely ignores the anxieties of the local residents. Naturally, the Japanese government strongly objects to this.
There has also been a series of accidental leaks of contaminated water. In April 2020, a malfunction of firefighting equipment at Futenma caused large quantities of fire extinguishing foam containing PFOS to leak and spread into residential areas. This past June, contaminated water was released from a separate military facility. PCBs and dioxins* have also been detected around the base and on the site of the return.
First of all, there is no way for Japan to ascertain the amount of chemicals on the military base, or how they are being handled. According to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, the regulatory authority of the base lies with the U.S. military, and Japan has no jurisdiction to address the problem.
According to a supplemental agreement regarding environmental measures signed in 2015, Japan may launch an investigation within the base in the event of any accidental pollution. However, it is the U.S. military that decides whether or not to respond. If it refuses to do so, any investigation remains beyond the Japanese government’s reach.
Pollution is not limited to the immediate vicinity of the base. High concentrations of organic fluorine compounds are also being detected in the area near Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. Japan needs a way to investigate inside military bases at times other than when accidents occur.
The SOFA is at the root of the problem. U.S. troops stationed in Germany are subject to German law; the German government also has authority to enter the base for investigations. The current conditions of the SOFA that threaten the lives and health of citizens cannot be renewed. The Japanese government should urge the U.S. to review the agreement.
*Translator’s Note: PFOS or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid is a kind of PFAS, synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in household products and industrial processes. PCBs are man-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms. Dioxins are chemically related compounds that are persistent environmental pollut