The mayor of a town in northeastern Japan said Wednesday he has urged the U.S. military to suspend operations by F-16 fighter jets stationed at Misawa Air Base after one of them dumped fuel tanks in a lake in the town following an engine fire.
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force sent troops to try to recover the leaked oil at Lake Ogawara. The dispatched unit inspected the site but decided to resume the operation on Thursday.
Tohoku town Mayor Koji Ebina made the request during a meeting with Col. R. Scott Jobe, commander of the U.S. base, after the F-16 jettisoned its two external fuel tanks into the lake.
“We have lots of fishermen. One wrong step could result in a catastrophe,” Ebina told reporters on Wednesday. Local fishermen said the tanks dropped between 200 and 400 meters away from clam boats, which were operating at that time.
The F-16 fighter developed the engine fire on Tuesday morning, immediately after taking off, and jettisoned the fuel tanks before returning safely to base. But the dumped tanks created oil slicks in the lake and sparked safety concerns among locals.
The MSDF personnel are tasked with collecting the oil and the fallen tanks at the request of the Aomori prefectural government.
Collecting the tank parts “is a matter that should be handled by the U.S. military but the U.S. side called on the Self-Defense Forces to do the job on their behalf,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said.
Although Ebina demanded the U.S. commander collect the fuel oil, the U.S. military replied it has neither the facilities nor ability to do so, according to the town officials.
Following the incident, the local fishery association decided to totally halt fishing in the lake until the fuel oil is cleaned up.
The town also decided Wednesday to demand the central government pay compensation for the losses incurred by the suspension of fishing and examine measures to protect their lives.
“We will do our best to acquire compensation as soon as the amount of the damages and fishing suspension days are determined,” the mayor said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed the government’s readiness to comply with the request, saying at a press conference, “If fishery damages are confirmed, we will investigate the actual conditions and deal with the matter appropriately.”
The latest case “has caused great fear to the people of the local fishery association and should not have taken place. We will provide relevant municipalities with any new information we get,” the top government spokesman said.
But it is unclear when compensation for the fishermen may be paid as it is likely to take time to confirm the amount of damages and other legal procedures.
Under the Japan-U.S. status of forces agreement, the United States is supposed to pay 75 percent of the total amount of damages caused by its military in the performance of official duties in Japan, while Japan covers the rest, if the United States alone is responsible.
The fuel tank incident followed a series of mishaps and accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in Japan, mostly in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the country.