By Masanori Hirakawa
The Mainichi Shimbun learned through the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) Osaka Civil Aviation Bureau that benzene and lead were detected on the grounds of Fukuoka Airport at levels exceeding the standards stipulated in the Soil Contamination Countermeasures Act. The contaminated soil was found along a pipeline that remains from the days the area was part of a U.S. military base. The base was returned to Japan in 1972. The Japanese government will pay at least 339 million yen to remove the contaminated soil. Part of the cost will be paid by Fukuoka Prefecture and Fukuoka City. It is unprecedented for local governments to pay for the removal of contaminated soil from land which was a former U.S. military facility.
The Japanese government plans to expand the runway at Fukuoka Airport to alleviate congestion. The contamination was found during a soil survey, which began in 2017 as part of the expansion project. According to the Osaka Civil Aviation Bureau, soil contamination was found along a pipeline on the southeast side of the international terminal. The pipeline remains from the days when the area was part of a U.S. military facility. At least three times the benchmark value of lead, and 23 times the benchmark value of benzene were detected there.
Lead and benzene are designated as hazardous materials under the Soil Contamination Countermeasures Act. If ingested, lead may cause paralysis of the arms and legs. Benzene has been noted to be carcinogenic. Fukuoka City, which received notification of the contamination from the Japanese government, designated about 1,100 square meters as the area requiring action under the soil contamination law. Although part of the area has been removed from the designation, the Japanese government is still working on removal of the contaminated soil.
Neither the Ministry of Defense’s Kyushu Defense Bureau, which conducted the soil survey, nor the Osaka Civil Aviation Bureau has released information on the contamination. The Osaka Civil Aviation Bureau explains that the “details of the pipeline are unknown, and there is no risk to health since the pipeline is in a limited area within the airport” and therefore “there is no need to release information.” A farmer who lives near the contaminated area says that he “would like the information to be released.” The soil contamination removal expenses have been appropriated as part of the runway expansion costs. Fukuoka Prefecture and Fukuoka City will pay part of the removal costs based on the Airport Act.
In response to the Mainichi Shimbun’s inquiry, the U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) replied that the “land returned to Japan is no longer a U.S. facility or area” and that actions and responsibilities that accompany return of the land have been fulfilled according to the conventions and standards in place at that time.” The USFJ did not respond to inquiries regarding the pipeline or the causal relationship between the pipeline and the contamination.
Fukuoka Airport was built by the former Japanese Imperial Army in May 1945 near the end of World War II. In October 1945, the U.S. military requisitioned the airport, and it became Itazuke Air Base. Most of the grounds were returned to Japan in 1972.
The U.S. has no obligation to compensate under SOFA
The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) stipulates that when the U.S. returns facilities or areas to Japan, the U.S. is not responsible for restoring them to their original condition or for providing compensation in place of restoration. In Okinawa, where 70% of U.S. military bases in Japan are located, there have been many instances of environmental pollution at sites that were previously U.S. military installations. There are many people in Okinawa who call for revision of the SOFA.
Arsenic was found on the land which used to house Camp Lester in Chatan, Okinawa. The area was returned to Japan in 2003. Many such instances of soil contamination have been revealed. The Mainichi surveyed the status of restoration costs for areas in Okinawa which previously were the sites of U.S. military installations. It was revealed that the Japanese government paid about 12.9 billion yen from fiscal 2003 to the end of August 2018 in restoration costs.