In the weeks before the 2 September 2022 meeting in Tokyo between the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Michael S. Regan, and Minister of the Environment (MoE), Nishimura Akihiro, senior EPA staff repeatedly discussed PFAS and PCB problems occurring in Okinawa Prefecture.
One agenda for an EPA meeting on 3 and 4 August included the topic “Handling sensitive issues including Okinawa base issues surrounding PFAS and PCBs.” Also on 3 August, an email from a senior EPA staffer advised that Regan be “properly prepared for press questions related to” the two issues. Another EPA document, titled “Japan Ministerial and Joint Statement Discussion”, features the subject “Sensitive Issues: Okinawa Base Related Issues on PCBs and PFAS”.
The revelations are contained in 81 pages of internal emails and meeting agendas obtained from the EPA via the US Freedom of Information Act.
Ultimately, the final Joint Statement released by the EPA and MoE omitted any mention of military contamination on Okinawa, only containing a generic comment about the importance of PFAS management and cooperation on scientific knowledge. That statement was issued in the names of the two countries’ environmental agencies, but in fact, the PFAS section had been penned by the US embassy and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).
According to an email sent by a senior EPA staffer to colleagues on 23 August 2022, “Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked with the U.S. Embassy to agree to language that can be included on PFAS in the Joint Statement that makes clear our limited engagement on the issue related to sharing scientific and health advisory matters.” The same email states, “EPA is not party to broader discussions on PFAS related to military/foreign affairs.”
The correspondence suggests the EPA wanted to avoid public entanglement in discussions about PFAS contamination from US bases on Okinawa where high levels of the chemicals have been detected in and around Kadena Air Base, MCAS Futenma, and Camp Hansen. Springs, wells, and the drinking water for 450,000 residents has been contaminated – but the US military has refused to allow local or national authorities access to its bases to determine the sources of pollution. Impacted areas include the grounds of an elementary school located downhill from the MCAS Futenma fire training area.
In 2018, the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center detected severe PCB contamination within Camp Kinser, recommending that service members and their families be notified. But the USMC did not reveal the findings until this newspaper obtained the report via the Freedom of Information Act. In recent years, PCB contamination has also been discovered at Kadena Air Base and the former Onna Communications Site. Under US-Japan bilateral agreements, the military is not liable for the clean-up of contaminated land returned to civilian use.
Asked why the US Embassy and MOFA had been delegated to write the September 2022 Joint Statement, a State Department spokesperson told Okinawa Times, “As a general matter, we do not comment on internal deliberations”; a MOFA representative responded, “While collaborating with relevant ministries and agencies, we have been communicating with the U.S. side at various levels. But we will refrain from revealing the details of these exchanges.”
The MoE also told Okinawa Times it would decline to explain the coordination process with the US side, whereas the EPA did not acknowledge requests for comment.