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SECURITY

Editorial: Revise SOFA now so Japan can get access to bases if a spill occurs

  • June 6, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:09 p.m.
  • English Press

On-site investigations by Japanese officials into a massive leak of potentially toxic material from a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture highlighted many problems concerning environmental accidents within U.S. facilities, despite being touted by the government as “progress.”

 

On April 10, a large amount of firefighting foam containing a chemical known to cause cancer leaked from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan. Officials of the central government as well as the prefectural and municipal administrations were allowed onto the air base to inspect the site of the spill and collect contaminated water and soil samples in May. The samples are now analyzed.

 

There is no provision in the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) concerning such environmental investigations. Five years ago, mainly in response to requests from Okinawa prefectural authorities, Japan and the United States signed an Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Stewardship Relating to the United States Armed Forces in Japan, which supplements the SOFA.

 

This latest incident marked the first time Japanese officials have been allowed to enter a U.S. military base for an investigation into an environmental accident under the supplemental agreement for environment stewardship. 

 

But not all the prefectural government’s requests concerning the investigation were granted. Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki has called for a further investigation, a completely justified request from the local government chief responsible for the health of people in the prefecture.

 

A bilateral agreement related to the stewardship accord only says that U.S. forces should “give all due consideration” to a Japanese request for permission to “conduct on-the-spot observations of the actions of the United States armed forces in addressing” such a spill.

 

Whether to allow any Japanese on-site probe into a specific accident within a U.S. base is up to U.S. forces to decide. This principle also applies to the collection of samples. This is far from enough to guarantee a satisfactory investigation.

 

The latest accident is not the first case of an environmental hazard caused by U.S. military operations in Okinawa. There have been reports of similar chemicals detected in spring water around U.S. bases in Okinawa.

Since 2016, the prefectural government has been conducting regular searches for such hazards while requesting permission to enter U.S. bases, to no avail.

 

One big obstacle to the local government’s efforts is the provision stipulating that on-the-spot observations by Japanese officials are allowed only when the U.S. military has notified Japan of an accident and in case “a date for return of the facilities and areas (in question) has been established.”

 

The stewardship agreement as well as the SOFA itself should be reviewed swiftly to address these issues.

 

The current situation makes it impossible for Japanese authorities to make any on-site investigation into environmental hazards within U.S. bases that threaten the health of local residents unless U.S. forces give a go-ahead. This is simply unacceptable.

 

Germany has a similar status-of-forces agreement with the United States. But the pact allows German federal and local authorities to enter U.S. bases, even without advance notice in an emergency. Japan deserves to have at least the same kind of agreement with U.S. forces.

 

Another issue that needs to be sorted out quickly concerns cleanup work. The local fire department removed the foam that leaked from the Futenma base.

 

There is no clear rule on which side should be responsible for such cleanup work outside U.S. bases. Such tasks often entail safety risks, and both governments should act swiftly to work out rules and procedures for responding to various situations.

 

In Okinawa, there have been many cases in which harmful substances were discovered at the sites of U.S. bases after their return to Japan. Removing these substances often takes time, impeding redevelopment projects. 

 

People in Okinawa have no means of knowing what kind of substances are stored, or how, behind the perimeter surrounding U.S. bases or whether they pose any environmental hazard. A system to allow Okinawa regular and effective monitoring for such hazards must be established through a revision to the SOFA.

 

This is not a problem confined to Okinawa. It raises serious questions about how the Japanese government should respond to serious safety concerns among people living around U.S. bases.

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