In October 2019, the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center (NMCPHC) produced a report detailing widespread, severe soil contamination at Camp Kinser, Urasoe City, concluding it posed a danger to the health of children and local national landscapers. The NMCPHC conducted surveys at sports fields, around clinics and next to an elementary school in November and December 2018, discovering contaminants in excess of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) screening levels which included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), total 2,3,7,8-TCDD TEQs as dioxins, and the pesticides, DDD and dieldrin.
In an area including a skate park, the NMCPHC calculated the exposure risks for children were 6.7 times the EPA’s Hazard Quotient, the level above which adverse health effects are possible; at the same site, the risk for landscapers was 2.1 times the quotient. At a soccer pitch next to Camp Kinser Elementary School, arsenic was detected at 35.1 mg/kg, 51 times EPA screening levels.
The NMCPHC recommended the findings “be communicated to the residents, recreators, and workers of Camp Kinser” – but no such notifications were made. The NMCPHC study was obtained via a US Freedom of Information Act request filed by this newspaper.
The full NMCPHC report can be read here.
The report reveals the military has been aware of the health risks at Camp Kinser since at least 1994 when surveys near medical and dental clinics, and a soccer field detected contamination from pesticides and other chemicals. “Cancer risks exceeded EPA action levels in all exposure scenarios,” states the report.
According to the NMCPHC, the contamination at Camp Kinser dates to the late-1960s ~ early-1970s when chemicals, returned from the Vietnam War, were stored outdoors at the base, and started leaking. In response to a large death of marine life in 1974, the military tried to clean up the site by burying chemicals and moving contaminated soil to a different area within the base. In the following years, clinics, family housing, sport fields and an elementary school were built atop, or near, the contaminated soil.
At least 21 US veterans now receiving compensation for Agent Orange exposure on Okinawa – despite Pentagon claims defoliants never stored on islandThe United States Department of Veterans Affairs is paying benefits to at least 21 US service members sickened from exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa, despite Pentagon assertions that the Vietnam War defoliant had never been brought to the island.www.okinawatimes.co.jp
At the time of publication, the US military had not responded to questions about its decision not to alert service members, their families, and base workers about the decades-long problem, and whether it would now remediate the contamination.
But internal USMC communications obtained via FOIA detail discussions surrounding the cover-up. In July 12, three months before the report’s publication, one Marine expressed hopes that the report would not be made publicly available and they wrote “I don't want to share it”. The writer also described concerns about possible enquiries from the local media, which they labeled, “notoriously hostile.”
Dated June 26, another email states that making the report public would trigger enquiries, from “the usual suspects (NHK, Kyodo News Service, Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo).”
Although the names and departments of the emails’ authors have been redacted, they appear to be written by members of the Okinawa-based USMC press affairs and environmental division.
450,000 Okinawans' drinking water contaminated by Kadena Air Base training site, new evidence suggestsIn 2016, Okinawa Prefecture announced that it had detected high levels of PFAS in rivers and wells in and around Kadena Air Base – and subsequent tests have confirmed severe contamination in this water system which provides drinking water to 450,000 residents.www.okinawatimes.co.jp
According to agreements between Japan and the United States, Camp Kinser is slated to be returned to civilian usage in FY 2024 or later; the American government is not required to remediate contamination before such returns, nor does it need to pay for any clean-up costs.
In response to this newspaper’s revelations, on 7 February 2023, Urasoe City Council convened an extraordinary session wherein members unanimously passed a resolution demanding the clean-up of the contamination. Nakahodo Junya, the chairman of the Assembly Steering Committee, commented, “The return of the base is imminent, so I want the government to thoroughly investigate.”
Meanwhile, on 10 February 2023, the Minister of Defense, Hamada Yasukazu, weighed in on the issue, telling the press, “Until now, Japan has taken responsibility for restoring returned military land to its original state, including the removal of obstacles. We will continue to work appropriately toward the smooth use of the Kinser site."
Journalist’s notebook: What triggered the military’s investigation?
In 2015, I wrote two articles for The Japan Times, about contamination at Camp Kinser, Urasoe City. The articles were based on an internal military report I’d obtained via FOIA, revealing soil contamination at the base prior to 1993. This was the first time that such a document had been made public – so the articles triggered international attention.
Unbeknownst to me, one of those concerned was a woman in California whose grandson was stationed with his family at Camp Kinser. She was so worried about the health risks that she contacted her Congresswoman, Julia Brownley (D-CA 26th District), in early 2018. The Congresswoman sent an official request to the Department of the Navy for more details; consequently, the NMCPHC launched an investigation into contamination at Camp Kinser.
In October 2019, the NMCPHC published its findings in a 384-page report titled, “Human Health Risk Assessment – Historical Storage Areas within Camp Kinser.” Its surveys detected high levels of hazardous substances; the NMCPHC concluded there were elevated health risks for children and local landscapers. The report also revealed the military had been aware of the risks since at least 1994. Although the NMCPHC recommended the population of Camp Kinser be notified, the military did not do so.
There are some telling lessons from this episode. First, it is well-known that the military ignores Okinawans’ demands for on-base environmental checks; notably, it has repeatedly refused inspections by Prefectural authorities to ascertain the source of PFAS contamination polluting 450,000 residents’ drinking water. But now we can understand that when such requests come from Americans, the military responds.
US military hid discovery of radioactive and PFAS contamination at scene of ’17 heli crashFollowing the crash of a USMC CH-53E helicopter on farmland in Higashi Village on 11 October 2017, the US military detected strontium-90 radioactive contamination at more than 5000 times background levels, as well as contamination from P FOS, likely a result of the firefighting foam used by the USMC to extinguish the burning helicopter.www.okinawatimes.co.jp
Secondly, the failure to alert Okinawan base workers of potential exposures is appalling. If such a cover-up occurred at a civilian work site, the managers might be prosecuted for negligence under labour, health and safety laws. Sadly, the US military has a history of endangering Okinawans at Camp Kinser, for example, in 1975 when workers there were exposed to a large spill of hexavalent chromium and other dangerous substances.
Most revealing is the military’s failure to protect the health of children at the base. In recent years, there have been similar incidents. In 2013, the USAF neglected to alert US parents about the discovery of dozens of barrels of toxic chemicals near schools at Kadena Air Base. Last year, too, high levels of PFAS were detected at the Futenma Daini Elementary School next to MCAS Futenma. The lesson is clear: military activities expose both American and Okinawan children to toxic chemicals, but there is little transparency and even less accountability.