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Dugong again threatens new airfield at Henoko

Date Posted: 2009-08-27

The dugong is waggling its tail through a lawsuit filed by a group of Okinawans opposed to construction of a new Marine Corps airfield in northern Okinawa, serving as the core objection to the new facility.

The dugong, a relative of the American manatee found in Florida, is an endangered species, and a new lawsuit is challenging the government’s actions in following the environmental laws of Japan. The lawsuit filed in Naha District Court contends that environmental assessments pertaining to the planned new airfield and its runways extending into Oura Bay do not comply with the law. The lawsuit specifically argues the construction would endanger the dugong living in the area.

The Defense Ministry disagrees with the group, insisting it has conducted all appropriate and necessary evaluations to comply with the environmental impact law. A spokesman for the Defense Ministry and its Okinawa Defense Bureau says it will continue to “carry out procedures appropriately, in compliance with applicable environmental impact laws” as it moves the project forward.

The Okinawa Dugong Protection Network Office wants the government to identify the specialists who did the research inspection of the dugong. Director Takenobu Tsuchida and one other man have filed the suit, demanding the Self Defense Okinawa Branch reveal the names of 16 individuals who worked on the project. The Japan Self Defense Force Okinawa Branch says “we can’t reveal details of contents and names of the specialists because of privacy rights, and if we opened the construction work data, it would interfere with proper work execution.”

Tsuchida says “the JSDF Okinawa Branch is still doing an investigation which is very dangerous to dugong.” He contends “dugong might go away or be shut down from outside Henoko,” and he accuses the JSDF of “creating a coverup of dugong habitat data. We need to know, and we have a right to know, what the 16 specialists say about the data.”

The 2006 agreement between Japan and the United States approved building the airfield on Camp Schwab, with two V-shape runways extending into the waters of Oura Bay. Local officials have challenged the runways’ location, with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima wanting the runways extended another 50 meters or more into the bay in exchange for his blessings. Environmentalists maintain moving the runways further into the bay would add to the dangers to the environment, including the dugong and coral.

“Critical information is missing” from the government’s environmental reports, says a spokesman for the group filing the lawsuit. Hiroshi Ashitomi contends the government is determined to build the new airfield, regardless of the implications of environmental laws. Surrounding villages, as well as the Okinawa Prefecture Government, want the runways moved deeper into the bay as safety measures.

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