Poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used by the US Navy since the mid-1960s. They pose a serious threat to the environment if not cleaned up properly.

Despite opposition by many Okinawans, the U.S. is holding on to its military power in these nominally Japanese islands. Once resistance to the invading U.S. forces had completely collapsed by the end of June, 1945, Okinawa became America’s most important troop staging area with air bases and naval anchorage for the planned final onslaught against Japan. As American scholar and activist Joseph Essertier reminds us, Okinawa then served as a launching pad for US military operations, but this time during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And today it continues to act as a principal base for American security in the Pacific region, primarily against North Korea and China.

Battle of Okinawa, April-June, 1945. The island remained a crucial strategic military operations base for the United States after World War II (Photo: US, primarily during the Korean and Vietnam wars, but also today as part of American regional security.This role is now being contested by environmentalists but also the local Okinawan population. Naval Archives)

But the islands’ environment (Okinawa Prefecture consists of a single large island with three smaller island groups) faces more than theoretical destruction. U.S. license plates in Okinawa once labeled Okinawa the “keystone of the Pacific.” The Okinawan people’s land has been occupied by U.S. forces for decades, and during that time their land and water has been poisoned by various substances, even some designed to kill people.

Roughly half of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan are stationed in Okinawa. Planned protests to mark this year’s 48th anniversary of the island’s reversion (apart from huge chunks which remain part of American base facilities) to Japan from U.S. control on 15 May 1972, were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coral reefs the world over are under threat from climate change and pollution. Japan’s first Hope Spot seeks to protect rare coral reefs and dugong habitants. (Photo: Toshio TAKAHASHI)

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Essertier has pointed out that Okinawa’s natural environment is so rich in biodiversity that scientists have recently given recognition to coastal waters of Henoko-Ōura on the main island’s eastern side as Japan’s first Hope Spot, i.e., a place that should be designated a nature preserve.

American oceanographer Sylvia Earle, founder of the Mission Blue Alliance which is a member of the Swiss-based RAMSAR Network, has stressed: “This unique coral hot-spot powers a little-known but richly diverse marine ecosystem which holds more than 5,000 species in its waters including 262 known to be endangered.”

A hazardous pollution that threatens the island: toxic firefighting foam

In mid-April 2020, however, an incident involving the massive discharge of toxic firefighting foam highlighted the dangers still present, not just from chemicals but from official procrastination.

The accident was caused when mountains of suds from a fire suppression system in an aircraft hangar of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma flowed into a local river on 10 April. The foam contains perfluoro octane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, and perfluoro octanoic acid, or PFOA. Huge clumps of foam reaching more than 30 metres high were seen floating on the river and settling into surrounding residential neighbourhoods.

This was not the first PFOS/PFOA toxic release in Okinawa. The incident has also greatly inflamed local frustrations with the Japanese central government and the U.S. military.

The chemicals are known to contribute to testicular, liver, breast, and kidney cancers, as well as a host of childhood diseases and abnormalities in a developing fetus. Their manufacture and importation have been prohibited in Japan since 2010, yet Okinawa’s drinking water continues to contain high levels of these substances.

Both the Okinawa Times and the Military Times reported that 143,830 litres of the foam spilled outside the base precincts from a total estimated 227,100 litres released from a hangar. The Japanese mainland Asahi Shimbun newspaper, however, maintained that only 14.4 litres had escaped, completely contradicting the locally observed scale of the release.

Dugong, which inhabit the coastal areas around Okinawa, are also in need of protection. (Photo: IUCN)

A first step toward more open transparency, but little else

More than a week (18 April) after the spillage, the U.S. military command allowed Japanese officials onto the base to investigate. This was the first access granted since a 2015 environmental supplementary agreement to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. The 2015 agreement says the Japanese government or local municipalities “may request” permission from the U.S. side to conduct surveys.

Nevertheless, neither the Okinawa Prefecture (Japan is administratively divided into 43 Prefectures, or states) nor the Ginowan municipal governments were contacted to join the investigation. When asked why the Okinawan officials were not present, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono replied, according to the Asahi Shimbun, that this was a mistake by the Japanese national government. An Okinawan Prefectural official was finally allowed into Futenma on 21 April. From the Okinawan point of view, the reason behind this alleged oversight was that both the U.S. military and Japanese authorities want to avoid revealing a complete picture of the designs of the hangars’ suppression systems.

Polluting foam from the Okinawa spillage.

“Forever chemicals” with deadly toxicity

In the case of an aircraft fire, five cubic metres of deadly foam can typically cover a plane in two minutes. The foam, which contains what are known as “forever chemicals,” can easily snuff out a petroleum-based fire. But they also possess high toxicity which can severely contaminate groundwater, surface water, and sewer systems when rinsed out of the hangar.

A video of a suppression system at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, in Knoxville, Tennessee shows exactly what can take place. Groundwater at the base 20m below the ground was found to contain 7,355 ppt of 6 types of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), far surpassing Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Surface water on base contained 828 ppt of PFOS and PFOA. This carcinogenic foam was allowed to enter both the storm drain and sanitary sewer systems.

Similar levels of carcinogens have been found in Okinawa. It is as if the U.S. military continually flushes gigantic toilet bowls of poison from its bases into the waterways of Tennessee, Okinawa, and hundreds of other locations worldwide. And despite legal restrictions, it seems unlikely that such pollution will be curbed.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act will continue to allow the release of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a highly efficient type of fire suppressant agent, for the purpose of emergency responses and testing of equipment or training personnel “if complete containment, capture, and proper disposal mechanisms are in place to ensure no AFFF is released into the environment”.

This was certainly not the case in Okinawa with overhead suppression systems still enabling the dumping of 227,000 litres of foam in a matter of minutes.

Safe replacements available

While Tomohiro Yara, a representative of the National Diet from Okinawa, has argued that “the US government should take full responsibility for cleaning up soil and water at any military base abroad,” the Japanese central government has failed to challenge military use of the deadly foams.

This despite the fact that suitable replacements are readily available and are being used worldwide. The U.S. Department of Defense, however, claims the fluorine-free foams currently on the market are not suitable alternatives to the carcinogenic foams used in practice drills and emergencies.

Yet the International Civil Aviation Organization has approved several fluorine-free foams (known as F3). These claim to match the performance of the AFFFs deployed by the U.S. military. F3 foams are widely used at major airports across the globe, including major international hubs such as Dubai, Dortmund, Stuttgart, London Heathrow, Manchester, Copenhagen, Cologne, Auckland…

So it is puzzling why the military – and the Japanese government – will not embrace the measures needed to ensure that both the local population and the island’s environment are prevented from exposure to such toxicity when equally effective – and safer – options are readily available.

Pat Elder is an investigative reporter with Civilian Exposure, a U.S. organization from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that tracks military contamination at www.civilianexposure.org. Thanks to Joseph Essertier for his edits and commentary.

Updates, related

6 August 2022: Jon Mitchell’s investigations for Okinawa Times (LINK)

27 March 2021: The Battle of Okinawa: Revisiting World War II’s Most Barbaric Battle. NationalInterest (LINK)

20 July 2020: The Pentagon Confronts the Pandemic. readersupportednews (LINK)

17 July 2020: Japan now scrambling jets against Chinese military aircraft taking off from Fujian. Japan Today (LINK)

14 July 2020: Pillar of Sand in Okinawa. counterpunch. Report ordered by 1 December 2020 on Futenma Replacement Facility, massive construction project to expand US Marines’ Camp Schwab (LINK)

12 July 2020: Coronavirus Outbreak at U.S. Bases in Okinawa Roils an Uneasy Relationship. New York Times (LINK)

22 June 2020: The Bloody Hell of Okinawa. Smithsonian Magazine: “Truman [came] to the conclusion that he had no choice but to drop the atomic bomb in order to avoid “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” (LINK)

Note: an earlier published version of this article stated that the U.S. continues to carry out war games with nuclear weapons from Okinawa. According to our latest information from scholars, both nuclear and chemical weapons were withdrawn or supposed to have been withdrawn before reversion in 1972. One researcher says the storage areas at Henoko and Kadena have remained intact. Reinforced storage areas next to the airbase near Henoko have been upgraded and nuclear attack drills for aircraft have continued at Kadena, he reports.

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