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Building plan for Nago heliport approved

Date Posted: 2002-08-01

After much arm twisting and political wrangling the Japanese government and Okinawa prefecture agreed on a basic plan for a new airport that will replace the MCAS Futenma.

The two sides reached an agreement in talks at the Prime Minister's Official Residence. State minister for Okinawa, Koji Omi, Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine and Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto took part in the meeting. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did not attend.

According to the agreement, the new air station will be built on a landfill on coral reefs about 2.2 km off Henoko coastline. The 184-hectare airfield will have a 2.5-km-long runway, which a little shorter than originally envisioned. Officials familiar with the plan say that it will take 9 1/2 years for the new facility to be completed. It will take over the helicopter operations of the MCAS Futenma, and also be jointly used by civilian aircraft. Its total construction cost is estimated at 330 billion.

The agreement was reached nearly six years after Japan and the U.S. agreed to relocate the Futenma base and return the site to Japan.

When exactly will the construction begin is still unclear, as the Okinawa Government is dead set to stick to Governor Inamine's campaign promise to limit the U.S. military's use of the airfield to 15 years. After the meeting, Inamine told reporters that he urged the government to provide a clear answer to his demand.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda emphasized Tokyo's continued commitment to address Okinawa's concerns but refused to say whether the government would pursue the 15-year limit with the U.S.

Residents of Henoko area held an emergency meeting after the agreement was announced. Henoko Village Chief Yasumasa Oshiro, said that he is against the decision as it will inevitable destroy the reef. "No one consulted us before the decision was made. We had discussed and agreed to support a plan to build a floating facility outside the reef. Now I feel that all that was only window dressing and waste of time," Oshiro said.

The plan will also raise the ire of environmental groups, because the landfill work will damage coral reefs at the construction site and also affect the surrounding marine environment, a known habitat for dugongs. To allay such fears the government plans to conduct environmental assessments starting this year.

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