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SOFA hinders fact finding in USFJ accidents in Sagamihara, Okinawa

  • 2015-09-02 15:00:00
  • , Tokyo Shimbun
  • Translation

(Tokyo Shimbun: September 2, 2015 – p. 2)

 

 Hideki Teraoka and Ryota Shimabukuro, Ryukyu Shimpo

 

 Little progress is being made in the investigation of the two major U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) accidents in Sagamihara City and Uruma City in Okinawa that occurred in two successive weeks. In both cases, the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is hindering fact finding. No substantial investigation has been conducted because investigators and the fire department are unable to inspect the scenes of the accidents.

 

 The Japanese authorities have no power to investigate fires on U.S. military facilities under SOFA. Although the USFJ allowed Japanese officials to visit the Sagami Depot three days after the fire broke out in the predawn hours of Aug. 24, they were only able to look at the site under USFJ officers’ supervision.

 

 Sagamihara City officials mostly reckon that this was a merely a gesture to “let off steam” because of the backlash against the earlier U.S. Army helicopter crash in Okinawa.

 

 The police also have no power of investigation. While police officers went to the Sagami Depot at the time of the fire at the USFJ’s request, they were only able to verify the situation. They have not been asked by the USFJ to investigate. The cause of the explosion of oxygen cylinders and fire extinguishers in the warehouse is still unknown.

 

 Investigations by a citizens’ group have found out that asbestos unloaded from ships visiting the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka (in Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture) were taken to the Sagami Depot in 1987 and that PCB was stored there in 1999. This group reckons that toxic wastes from U.S. bases in Japan are also stored in the depot, but the USFJ is not required to declare hazardous materials in its possession, so it is difficult for the city government to obtain accurate information.

 

 During the recent explosion, risk assessment of the materials stored in the warehouse delayed firefighting by six hours. Five citizens’ groups in Kanagawa demanded on Aug. 31 that the Sagami Depot disclose information on materials held on the facility and accept regular inspections of toxic wastes and hazardous materials.

 

 In the case of the crash of the U.S. military helicopter on Aug. 12, the 11th Regional Headquarters of the Japan Coast Guard and the Okinawa prefectural police indicated that since the helicopter crashed on a U.S. ship, this was considered an accident inside a U.S. military base. They both claimed that they have no power to investigate under SOFA. The helicopter involved in the crash was carried onboard the U.S. ship, which sailed north to Busan, where it was off loaded. The USFJ has not even revealed the specific model of the aircraft, which unit it belongs to, and who are the crew members onboard.

 

 According to investigations by Ryukyu Shimpo and others, the fuselage serial number shows that the helicopter was from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. It is an MH-60M used by the Special Operation Forces. Yet the USFJ’s official announcement only said that it was an H-60 of the U.S. Army. The H-60 has several models for different purposes. Administration and local government officials who are responsible for fact finding on the accident based on official information are still confused over what happened.

 

 The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed an opinion statement and protest resolution on Aug. 19 to protest the crash and demand investigation into the cause, measures to prevent a recurrence, suspension of operation of aircraft of the same type, and consolidation and reduction of U.S. bases. (Slightly abridged)

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