(Tokyo Shimbun: August 25, 2015 – Top play)
Following the multiple explosions on August 24 at a warehouse in the U.S. Army Sagami General Depot in Kanagawa Prefecture, there are lingering concerns that hazardous materials are stored at U.S. military facilities. However, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) stands in the way of Japan’s fact-finding.
“On account of the SOFA functioning as de facto ‘extraterritoriality,’ there is nothing we can do. We have no way to obtain a 100% accurate grasp of the situation inside the U.S. military facilities,” said a source associated with Sagamihara City Fire Department.
When the warehouse where the explosion occurred was completed in July 1998, the city fire department conducted a fire safety inspection at the site by checking the fire alarm and extinguishers. The U.S. military requested the inspection based on Japan’s Fire Service Law. In addition, when hazardous material storage facilities were constructed at the depot, the U.S. military submitted an application for permission to the Japanese government and the fire department conducted an onsite inspection.
This might give the impression that Japan’s Fire Service Law applies to the U.S. military facilities, but that is not the case. According to the city fire department, the department can continue conducting on-the-spot inspections of Japanese facilities to check on how those facilities are being used. However, due to the SOFA, no access to the U.S. military facilities is allowed after the initial inspection. It is possible for the U.S. military to construct a hazardous material facility that violates Japan’s Fire Service Law on the premises without submitting an application to Japan.
This applies to the storage of material such as “oxygen cylinders, etc.” as claimed by the U.S. military this time. Japan’s High Pressure Gas Safety Law requires notification to the prefectural government office when storing cylinders exceeding a certain amount, but this does not apply to the U.S. military bases and no on-the-spot inspections are allowed.
The SOFA stipulates that the U.S. military exercises police authority within bases and areas and takes all necessary actions. According to the prefectural police headquarters, the prefectural police can search and inspect within bases with the U.S. military’s consent. However, as the U.S. military claims that there is little possibility that this incident was caused by arson from outside or terrorism, the Japanese police are apparently unable to investigate the matter.
Even if debris from the explosion were found outside the base, the Japanese police would immediately contact the U.S. military security forces (according to the Sagamihara Police Station), so it would not be easy to even touch the “evidence.”
In 1999, waste materials including a toxic substance called polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) were found at the depot. Masaji Sawada, the leader of a citizen’s group called “Sagami Depot Watch Group” that monitors the facility, said, “We should aim to realize a local agreement that will allow on-the-spot inspection of waste and hazardous materials on a regular basis.” (Abridged)