Kadena AFB’s dirty secret: Contamination
Jon Mitchell, Japan Times, Apr 9 2016
Located in the centre of Okinawa island, Kadena AFB is the largest USAF installation in Asia. (And that, you can easily imagine, means it is totally fucking insanely huge and leaves neither room nor even sanity for the Japanese who are supposed to be being protected by it – RB). Equipped with two 3.7 km runways and thousands of hangars, homes and workshops, the base and its adjoining arsenal sprawl across 46 sq km. More than 20,000 Pindo skyboys, groundlings, commissars, contractors, whores and families live or work on the base, alongside 3,000 Japanese menial workers. Kadena AFB hosts the biggest combat wing in the USAF, the 18th Wing, and over the past seven decades, the installation has served as an important launchpad for Pindo attempts at genocide in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The USAF calls it the “keystone of the Pacific,” by which they mean their Pacific, not yours. But until now, nobody has realized the damage the base is inflicting on the environment and those who live in its vicinity. Documents obtained under the FOIA reveal how years of accidents and neglect have been polluting local land and water with hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, lead, PCBs, asbestos and dioxin. The USAF has hidden this contamination. This week, we examine the pollution of local water resources and the exposure of on- and off-base residents to lead and asbestos. The accompanying article explains the flaws in current guidelines that allow the USAF in Japan to conceal such contamination. Next week, we will investigate the installation’s ongoing struggles to manage contamination from PCBs, its cover-up of the discovery of hazardous waste near two on-base schools, and the human impact of this pollution.
In January, the USAF released 8,725 pages of accident reports, environmental investigations and emails related to contamination at Kadena AFB. Dated from the mid-1990s to Aug 2015, this is believed to be the first time such recent information detailing pollution on an active USAF base in Japan has been made public. The documents catalog approximately 415 environmental incidents between 1998 and 2015. 245 of these occurred since 2010. Incidents range from small leaks that stayed within the confines of the base to large spills discharging tens of thousands of litres (kl) of fuel and raw sewage into local rivers. During the 1998-2015 period, total leaks included almost 40 kl of jet fuel, 13 kl of diesel and 480 kl of sewage. Of the 206 incidents noted between 2010 and 2014, 51 were blamed on accidents or human error. Only 23 were reported to the Japanese authorities. The year 2014 saw the highest number of accidents, 59, only two of which were reported to Tokyo. Large parts of the documents have been redacted, and reports for the years from 2004 to 2007 are missing. These omissions almost certainly mean that the actual statistics are much higher. Due to its location, Kadena AFB plays an integral role in the supply of the island’s drinking water. There are 23 wells within the installation, some of which contribute to on-base potable water. More than 300 km of drains carry the installation’s storm water into local rivers, including the Hija River, which supplies drinking water for six municipalities and Okinawa’s capital, Naha. Documents suggest that mistakes and negligence on the base have contaminated this water supply. In Aug 2011, for example, 760 l of diesel spilled into the Hija River when an operator abandoned a generator tank prior to the arrival of a typhoon. In Dec 2011, 1,400 l of diesel leaked from USAF housing on Camp McTureous after officials ignored a warning light. The fuel contaminated the Tengan River. Other reports suggest that miscommunication exacerbated spill incidents. In 2012, an engineer took 80 minutes to respond to a 190 l fuel spill because he was at a food court on the base, and could not hear his telephone ringing. In Feb 2015, environmental teams failed to respond to two incidents, the first involving 170 l of fuel and the second 23 l of hydraulic fluid, despite being alerted by emergency crews. As well as fuel leaks, the base mistakenly released at least 23 kl of fire suppressant foam between 2001 and 2015. In Aug 2012, a Japanese firefighter set off a fire system in an accident that leaked 1.14 kl. In May 2015, a drunk Pindosi Marine released 1.51 kl in an act of vandalism. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) has recently become a focus of concern both on Okinawa and in Pindostan. In January, Okinawa Prefecture announced that waterways around Kadena AFB were currently contaminated with PFOS. In 2008, levels in an on-base well had measured as high as 1,870 nanograms/litre (ng/l). The EPA’s provisional health advisory limit for drinking water is 200 ng/l. Last month, the USAF promised to conduct tests for PFOS contamination on 664 bases in Pindostan. A spox for Pindo Forces Japan was unable to confirm whether similar tests would be conducted on Okinawa or elsewhere in the country. Komichi Ikeda, an adviser to the Environmental Research Institute in Tokyo, says:
Current research suggests (PFOS) may cause cancer, reproductive disorders and damage the next generation. Pregnant women and young children ought to be especially careful to avoid consuming water contaminated with PFOS.
Since 2008, Kadena AFB has also spilled at least 1.67 kl of hydraulic fluid, a known source of PFOS. Drains from the base’s fire-training area, where foams are routinely sprayed, feed into local waterways. Another threat to Okinawa’s water supply comes from leaks of raw sewage, which the base apparently only started recording in 2010. In Nov 2010, a 57 kl spill contaminated the Shirahi River and the sea with sewage (36k fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml, 90 times the Pindo EPA’s maximum limit for swimmers). In Jun 2013, an overflowing manhole leaked 208 kl of sewage into the Hija River. The base took 27 hours to notify local authorities but its subsequent press release naturally enough stated:
The health and safety of our service members and our friends in local community is our top priority.
Follow-up emails exchanged among USAF boxtops included the comment:
We received little media coverage. So that’s good news.
The documents highlight the dangers of operating a busy airfield in the midst of civilian communities. Numerous in-flight emergencies cause pilots to abort their missions, twice in one week in Jan 2015. In Aug 2011, an in-flight emergency caused an F-15 to dump 150 l of fuel from low altitude. The summary concluded there was no impact to the local community. The documents point to the exposure of Pindo and Japanese nationals to dangerous levels of lead and asbestos. For many decades, a furnace within the installation burned ammunition and “other exotic pyrotechnics” without any emission controls. In 1993, investigators discovered this incineration had contaminated nearby land with lead at 13.813 g/kg and more distant jungle with 6 g/kg. There were “small farms and vegetable plots” in the area and the site was near a waterway. Another burn pit, cited in an Apr 1994 report, was blamed for lead concentrations in soil exceeding 0.5 g/kg, with fields again apparently in the close vicinity. The Japanese government’s clean-up standard for lead contamination in soil is 0.15 g/kg. Japan has no standard for agricultural land, but in Germany the maximum level permitted is 0.1 g/kg. Ikeda says:
People working in the area need to worry about intellectual disabilities and damage to their nervous systems. Also if they inhaled this lead and other substances over a long period, it may have caused reproductive damage and harmed blood and organs such as kidneys. Because the levels are so high, there is the very strong chance that the land remains contaminated today.
Ikeda criticizes the reports for their lack of data on other heavy metals likely discharged during the incineration of ammunition, including DU, which the USAF used widely in the 1990s (still uses, though not widely enough to destroy entire countries overnight – RB). Surveys from 2000 to 2001 revealed serious contamination from asbestos in many buildings such as dormitories, mess halls and boiler rooms. Inspectors found large chunks of deteriorating asbestos materials scattered onto nearby lawns. One of the locations was an abandoned hospital that had been used for “readiness training” prior to 2000. Investigators noted how military personnel had used axes and chainsaws to breech asbestos-packed doors, resulting in the spread of friable asbestos across an area of 460 sq m. In recent years, Japanese base employees have struggled to win compensation from Tokyo for illnesses attributed to their work in asbestos-contaminated environments. Many were instructed to work without proper safety equipment. In 2014, the Japanese government agreed to pay compensation to 28 victims, but experts estimate the number of sick is likely in the hundreds. Former base worker Susumu Tamura witnessed first-hand the dangers of asbestos. Employed on Pindo bases for 43 years until the 1990s, his testimony helped to win compensation for the family of a colleague killed by asbestos-related lung disease. In a recent interview, Tamura recalled the dilemma faced by many Okinawans employed by the USAF:
Even if we thought what we were ordered to do was wrong, we didn’t refuse. We were worried that we’d be fired. I regularly witnessed lax environmental standards, including the illicit dumping of waste and shoddy clean-up work. Nowadays, safety conditions may have improved, but in those days, the only way to describe them was yaritai hodai. The USAF did whatever it wanted.
130 USAF bases are in operation in Japan, 32 of which are located in Okinawa Prefecture, but the Pindosis who serve upon them, like the local residents, know nothing of the dangers these installations pose to human health or the environment. At the root of the problem lies the SOFA, which makes no allowances for Japanese officials to conduct pollution checks within Pindo bases, nor does it hold the military responsible for cleaning up land that is returned for civilian use. In 2015, Washington and Tokyo pegged a supplementary agreement onto SOFA giving local authorities the right to request a base inspection following a spill. To date, however, the Pentagon has failed to green-light any such checks. With both SOFA and the new agreement failing to protect the country’s environment, it comes down to Japan Environmental Governing Standards. The guidelines specify when Pindo forces need to report spills to the Japanese government, for example, after they surpass a certain volume or contain a substance listed as hazardous. However, they do not assign punishment to bases breaching environmental policies or hold the military responsible for contamination outside its bases. Documents recently released under the FOIA reveal instances of USAF boxtops conspiring to hide environmental incidents from the public. In Jul 2014, for example, the discovery of a buried barrel of chemicals within Kadena AFB sparked emails urging responders:
Low profile please. Don’t want this release to press (sic).
This combination of flawed regulations and lack of transparency creates obstacles for researchers trying to ascertain pollution within USAF bases in Japan. Scientists can only check land that has already been returned for civilian use, by which time it is too late to prevent contamination, or conduct tests on wildlife captured near active bases in the hope their tissues will reveal traces of any toxins. Given these constraints, one of the most effective ways to lift the lid on locked-tight bases is the FOIA. Beryl Lipton of MuckRock, the organization that helped to secure the release of the documents, says:
This release of documents about Kadena AFB is a great example of the power of the FOIA. Because the Pindosi government has a hand in many global activities, the international community has many questions for it. The FOIA gives great power to the people. Official press releases and statements are no longer the final say on a matter. You can check what public officials say. The FOIA can hold the Pindosi government to their own words by their own law.
And if I may just add, don’t kid yourselves you can accomplish a fucking thing with it if you don’t have substantial funds behind you – RB