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U.S. expected to strengthen PFAS regulations, impact on Okinawa bases unknown

  • November 15, 2020
  • , Ryukyu Shimpo , p. 2
  • JMH Translation

By Ryota Shimabukuro


Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden of the Democratic Party has secured a victory in the U.S. presidential election. His campaign platform states that he will strengthen U.S. regulations on suspected carcinogens per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS contamination around U.S. military bases in Okinawa became an issue in 2016, and many Okinawans are calling for cleanup work to be done in Okinawa, including on the U.S. military bases there. Okinawans are sure to monitor how developments in the U.S. impact Okinawa and the U.S. bases in the prefecture.


Enhancement of U.S. PFAS regulations may affect the activities of the U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ), but the outlook is still unclear.


Regulations under consideration in the U.S. concern PFAS levels in tap water. Tap water in Okinawa is regulated by the Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau, and the U.S. military is not involved.


In the event that PFAS is designated as a hazardous substance in the U.S., the obligation of responsible parties for decontamination will become clearer. Japanese laws and regulations do not apply to the USFJ under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, however.


The Japanese side is expected to be hesitant to request the U.S. military to clean up the contamination without the support of a clear causal relationship. The contamination of the Chatan Water Treatment Plant water source with perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has become an issue. The treatment plant supplies seven municipalities. The U.S. military, however, has refused to allow the Japanese side to conduct a survey at the Futenma base. The source of the contamination has not been determined, nor has the contamination been removed.


It is stipulated that the USFJ must follow the stricter of either the U.S. or Japanese guidelines in its environmental protection activities, as set forth in the Japan Environmental Governing Standards (JEGS). The USFJ may be required in essence to strengthen contamination measures in Japan if U.S. PFAS regulations are enhanced. The U.S. side has not disclosed how it uses JEGS.


PFAS, which have been called “forever chemicals,” do not break down much at all in the natural environment. Removal of the source will be essential to resolve the contamination issue. Okinawa Prefecture’s Enterprise Bureau only performs “symptomatic treatment,” such as using activated carbon at the Chatan Water Treatment Plant and reducing PFOS and PFOA levels in pre-treatment water. The source of the contamination has been neglected to date.


Masami Kawamura, representative of the environmental survey group Informed-Public Project (IPP), notes that “the new [U.S.] administration will promote PFAS legislation, an area where progress at the federal level has been slow” and that Okinawa Prefecture should “anticipate U.S. developments in this area and create a strategy for negotiating with the Japan and U.S. governments and taking measures.” Kawamura said that the IPP has worked with a U.S. organization to submit letters to U.S. Congress, and will increase such activities. Kawamura called for Okinawa to strengthen its response, saying that the “governor as the head of the local government needs to publicly express the intent to point out PFAS damage caused by the U.S. military and to make requests in that regard.” (Abridged)

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