U.S. covered up massive PCB contamination at Okinawa base

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A report this month reveals that the U.S. Air Force has covered up massive PCB contamination at its Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, since the late 1980s. The contamination far exceeded safety levels.

U.S. military officials did not report the contamination to Japanese authorities, and did nothing to alleviate the contamination.

Revelation of the PCB cover-up follows a furor among both U.S. service members and Okinawans over of the unearthing of 83 barrels containing dioxins and other toxic chemicals, including barrels labeled Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Agent Orange, on land formerly part of the Kadena base that is now the Okinawa City soccer field. And the two issues come on top of already widespread Japanese opposition to the heavy U.S. military presence on Okinawa.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemical mixtures that were commonly used in electrical equipment, oil, insulation and other products before being banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration in 1979 because of their toxicity. According to the EPA, "PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system." PCBs in the environment do not go away - they continue to pose health risks for decades, "cycling between air, water, and soil," the EPA says. They can spread over long distances, and can be absorbed into food crops and by small animals and fish.

Soil tests at the contaminated site showed PCB concentrations of 2,290 parts per million (ppm). That is far above the peak level of 750 ppm found at some of the most contaminated toxic Superfund cleanup sites in the U.S.

According to its own documents, the Air Force did not report the contamination at the time because of concerns that it might damage election chances of politicians who supported the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, in upcoming prefectural assembly elections in 1988.

The documents were recently leaked to Japan Times reporter Jon Mitchell, who has extensively covered toxic pollution at U.S. bases in Okinawa.

An internal Air Force action plan dated Dec. 1, 1987 expressed fear that, if the story got out, conservative politicians in Okinawa would feel compelled "at least in appearance, to put pressure on USFJ [U.S. Forces Japan] commanders and demand answers to tough questions about the incident."

Noting that "The potential for soil contamination at sites on other USFJ installations on Okinawa exists," the plan also expressed concern that U.S. and Japanese officials would be "pressured to test soil samples from high-risk sites ... at all USFJ installations."

But the action plan's author, First Lt. Bob Mccarty, a public affairs officer, concluded that transparency would be the best policy for the U.S. He recommended that U.S. officials brief the Okinawa provincial governor and mayors in the affected areas about the contamination.

An accompanying cover memo from McCarty's superior, Lt. Col. Robert Winkelmann, says, "In order to avoid embarrassment and accusations of a 'cover up,' it is critical that we rapidly forward this information to Japanese government officials and try to minimize the 'damage' which will inevitably result."

These recommendations apparently were ignored.

Dr. Masami Kawamura, director of environment policy and justice at the Citizens Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, said the PCB contamination was actually first revealed by a Japanese nongovernmental organization in 1992. In an email response to an inquiry from this reporter, Dr. Kawamura said she was "overwhelmed" by the extent of the PCB contamination. She said she felt "strong resentment" toward the U.S. (and the Japanese government) for covering up this "significant information for our health, safety and environment," for "their political reasons."

Okinawans have had long-standing concerns about contamination stemming from U.S. military bases.

A few examples:

In the 1990s, in Onna, a village in central Okinawa, "high levels of mercury, cadmium and PCBs have hampered plans to redevelop former U.S. military land" that was returned Japan in 1995.

In 2008, in Yomitan village, "levels of arsenic 120 times over the legal limit were found on former U.S.-controlled land."

In 2013, traces of PCBs nearly nine times higher than normal were discovered in wild mongoose tested near the U.S. Futenma Air Station and Makiminato Service Area (Camp Kinser).

And the town of Chatan, which borders the Kadena Air Base, "has recently been forced to postpone plans to widen roads onto former (U.S.) military land due to the discovery of dangerous levels of lead."

The report of the 25-year-long PCB contamination cover-up is likely to "increase Okinawan people's concerns" over base contamination and their right to be informed, Dr. Kawamura said.

"To get the truth," Okinawa City has been overseeing the Japanese government's investigation and cross-checking test findings, she said. "We should hold the governments of Japan and the U.S. accountable and insist on more transparency."

They should acknowledge their responsibility in the PCB contamination, Dr. Kawamura said, even "though more than 25 years has passed" since the contamination was first discovered.

Photo: Entrance to the U.S. Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. Alan Berning CC

 

 

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  • I was born at Kadena back in '86 and i'm now suffering from major health issues, my mother now has auto immune and liver issues and she was never drank and none of that runs in our family. Very irritated to hear about this.

    Posted by Meshelle, 04/07/2014 5:41am (5 months ago)

  • I lived there and had my daughter there from 2007-2013 and I have been going to the doctor for stomach issues and respiratory problems. Is there a class action law suit?

    Posted by Toni Shealey, 04/01/2014 5:49pm (5 months ago)

  • Im not surprised...this is ridiculous. Im currently in the military and am now worried of future problems due to govt negligence...a lawsuit seems to be in order here..

    Posted by Angry NCO!, 03/31/2014 4:51pm (5 months ago)

  • What are the chances of that.... Only the good die young I guess I was stationed there for two years drank the water went to kadena futema and so forth this is great

    Posted by Will, 03/30/2014 6:29pm (5 months ago)

  • I lived in Okinawa from 1997-2000 and then again from 2005-2009. After I left Okinawa in 2000 I started to have auto immune problems. Problems that are NO where in my blood line. Thanks to the government I will now have to deal with this the rest of my life (and I pray it's a long life). It makes me very angry to think that had we not been stationed there that I wouldn't have this most likely.

    Posted by , 03/29/2014 6:43pm (5 months ago)

  • This is so interesting to hear because I happened to develope an endocrine disease while living there, which now affects the rest of my life. I wonder if lawsuits will be initiated?

    Posted by Kimberly, 03/29/2014 12:10am (5 months ago)

  • So, how safe is the drinking water I. The areas around the schools?

    Posted by , 03/28/2014 4:53pm (5 months ago)

  • How about the servicemen that have been stationed there? The government obviously has no concern for them. Some members of my own family have been stationed there.

    Posted by Carol, 03/28/2014 3:00pm (5 months ago)

  • While I don't see how Dow Chemicals has anything to do with this, I am concerned about possible health ramifications in the future. I lived on Okinawa from 1988-1996, and went to AEIS during my fourth/fifth grade years. I was also there as a military member from 2004-2008, again living on Kadena. While I failed to be surprised at the under-handedness of politicians, I do not see how the IG did not continue to pursue this matter, unless pressured by a much higher authority. It remains to be seen if any future medical problems arise in my family or me, which can be attributed to exposure to these chemicals. I list of side-effects would have been helpful, but I guess that's what the internet is here for.

    Posted by Anthony, 03/28/2014 6:42am (5 months ago)

  • Wow! My son is scheduled to be transferred to this base in June. I am livid at learning this!!! I am angry with my government...politicians...and Dow Chemical. SHAME on you ALL!!! When will simply do what is RIGHT and not make it about power, greed or money?

    Posted by Tammy, 03/27/2014 12:02pm (5 months ago)

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