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U.S. judge tosses monkey wrench into Henoko plans

Date Posted: 2008-01-28

An American district judge who ruled the Defense Department did not do its homework before moving ahead with plans for the new U.S. Marine Corps airfield at Camp Schwab is being hailed a hero by Okinawa environmentalists.
The San Francisco based U.S. District Court judge has agreed with teams of American and Japanese environmental groups that design plans for the new air station in northern Okinawa did not take into consideration environmental issues that could endanger dugongs living in the waters off Camp Schwab. Judge Marilyn Hall Patel upheld the environmentalists’ suit filed four years ago in the Northern California judicial district, agreeing that the Defense Department had not conducted an environmental study on the impact of building the new airfield in Oura Bay adjacent to Camp Schwab.
She concurred with the plaintiffs’ argument nobody considered the new construction’s effects on the Okinawa dugong, which is known to live in the shallow waters in the area, and gave the Defense Department three months to come up with a plan for determining the impact the airfield project would have on the dugong. The judge wants to see a plan that will protect the lumbering mammals that live in the salt water of Oura Bay.
Judge Patel’s ruling was the first ever on a suit brought from outside the United States, or for a project situated outside the United States. The dugong is considered an endangered species under Japanese law. The slow moving mammals are part of the manatee family. Churaumi Aquarium officials in Motobu say there are only a few dozen dugong now in Okinawa waters, and the number is already declining to dangerously low levels because of dangers caused by fishermens’ nets.
Japanese government officials in Tokyo subtly dismissed the American court ruling, saying it was unlikely the decision would slow the plan to build a new airfield at Camp Schwab so the contentious Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan City could be closed. Japanese officials in Tokyo contend Judge Patel’s ruling only potentially impacts future operations at Camp Schwab, and not the construction process itself.
Okinawa Prefecture officials disagree. The chief of the Futenma Relocation Affairs Office says he thinks it will. Miwako Ueyonahara says an adverse environmental assessment will require inevitable changes. U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that the U.S. military violated federal law—the National Historic Preservation Act—by not thoroughly considering the dugong in the area.
Construction of the new airfield is critical to Japanese-American plans for restructuring U.S. forces in Japan. Constructing the new facility is linked not only with closing Futenma, but also with moving 8,000 U.S. Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam. The new airfield is supposed to be operational by 2014.

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