It seems Okinawan residents had good reason to sue the Japanese government and spend over 500 days protesting the relocation of a U.S. base on their land. They had long suspected that U.S. bases were polluting their waterways, and documents released by Freedom of Information Act request appear to prove them right. A recent drinking water contamination in Okinawa may have been caused by a series of accidents at Kadena Air Base, which led to the release of a minimum 21,000 liters of fire extinguishing agents over the period of 15 years. Some of these agents are toxic.
One incident details how a drunken marine apparently filled a hanger with 1,500 liters of JET-X 2.75 percent. It is classified as “hazardous” by the U.S. government, and contains chemicals that cause cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders.
What is of particular concern is that the chemicals were allowed to flow into nearby waterways and the ocean, while U.S. military officials chose not to report the incident to Japanese authorities, or even the affected residents.
17,000 liters of fire extinguishing agent was also released over three days in 2001. This was apparently caused by mechanical and electronic malfunctions. Malfunctioning equipment was also blamed for 3,400 liters of liquid released between 2012 and 2014.
The revelation comes as the Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau announced the results of tests that they had conducted from February 2014 to November of last year. They found high levels of Perfluorooctanesulfonate (a component of fire extinguishing agents) in the waterways near the Kadena base, up to 1,320 ng/L; waterways that supply drinking water to seven municipalities.
The US Environmental Protection Agency considers Perfluorooctanesulfonate to be an emerging contaminant- it is easily absorbed by and accumulates in the blood, kidneys and liver. It is also difficult to remove from the body, and takes nine years to reduce by half. It causes reproductive and developmental problems, with the EPA stating that the limit for safe short-term exposure is 200 ng/L. The highest levels detected are six times higher than the safe short-term exposure limit.
Japan has prohibited the production of Perfluorooctanesulfonate for the last six years, which doesn’t do it any good if the U.S. base keeps expelling the stuff into the waterways.
Email correspondence between base officials regarding the drunk marine incident shows their primary concern; because the incident occurred at night it was “highly unlikely to draw any public notice because the foam would disipate (sic) before morning.” Further, these incidents may be just the tip of the iceberg; the correspondence also reveal that some spills go unreported.
A U.S. Military Base, Okinawa SOURCE: pref.okinawa.jp
Though the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement to allow Japanese to visit military facilities in the event of a chemical spill, the wording of the Japan Environmental Governing Standards allows the U.S. military officials to determine when an incident was considered “significant” enough to report to Japanese authorities. Political science professor at Okinawa International University, Manabu Sato, questioned why the US could pick and choose when it wanted to report incidents.
“Okinawa Prefecture and municipalities near the base should conduct an independent investigation into the leaks. Moreover the Japanese government should require the U.S. military to notify it of any potentially harmful leakage — regardless of the amount. To decide the significance of a leak should not be left up to the U.S. military.”