Emails obtained from the US Marine Corps via the US Freedom of Information Act catalog a string of accidents and careless operating procedures involving PFAS-firefighting foam at MCAS Futenma, Kadena Air Base, and Camp Hansen. Notably, the USMC was experiencing so many spills in 2019, that a senior Marine described them as “a trend”; meanwhile, in an outdoor pond at Kadena Air Base, the US Air Force was storing 76,000 liters of water contaminated with PFAS at up to 50,000 ng/L – 1000-times Japanese environmental guidelines.
Civilian communities near all three bases are severely polluted with PFAS – but the military still refuses to admit responsibility or permit Japanese authorities to conduct on-base checks. PFAS, an ingredient in firefighting foams, can cause serious health problems including cancers, hormone imbalance and harm to the immune system.
According to the emails, as of September 2019, the USMC on Okinawa possessed 65 firefighting trucks and mobile devices loaded with PFAS-containing foam – and they were experiencing frequent accidents which spilled the hazardous substance.
“I believe this is the third AFFF (aqueous film forming foam) spill at (Camp) Butler in the last couple of months or so. Three times is a trend,” wrote a senior Marine assigned to Marine Corps Installations Pacific (MCIPAC) on 12 September 2019. One accident occurred on 29 August 2019 at MCAS Futenma when a firefighting truck crashed into a barricade, puncturing its holding tank, and spilling approximately 400 liters of foam; the foam reached storm drains.
According to the emails, 21 of the firefighting trucks or devices were located at Camp Hansen, Kin Town. This is the first time that proof of PFAS firefighting foam has been confirmed at the base. In recent years, local officials have detected high levels of PFAS contamination near Camp Hansen, including concentrations of 780 ng/L – 15.6 times the Japanese environmental guideline of 50 ng/L – in waterways in 2022.
Upon learning of the contents of the USMC emails, Kin Town Mayor Nakama Hajime told Okinawa Times, "There is a high possibility that the base is the source of the contamination. We would like to request an on-site inspection to investigate the cause."
The FOIA-obtained emails also contain a photograph and description of an outdoor pond in Kadena Air Base where the USAF stored 76,000 liters of water containing PFAS concentrations of up to 50,000 ng/L. A photograph shows the pond was surrounded by grass and greenery, and it was almost filled to the brim. Such conditions raise concerns that rainfall could have overfilled the pond, spilling contaminated water into the environment.
A second, larger pond holding 190,000 liters of water contaminated with PFAS at the same level was located at Misawa Air Base, Aomori Prefecture.
Details of the ponds are revealed in emails sent by the Environmental Affairs Branch at Camp Foster, Okinawa, in November 2019. According to the messages, the USMC was discussing how to use experimental technology to clean PFAS-contaminated water. In August 2021, the USMC used similar technology to treat water at MCAS Futenma before dumping it into the sewage system, but subsequent tests by Ginowan City detected PFAS levels of 670 ng/L, suggesting the technology had failed.
Previous investigations by this newspaper have revealed extensive PFAS contamination at the Kadena and Misawa air bases. At Kadena Air Base, the USAF operated a firefighter training area during the 1970s and ‘80s without any environmental controls; nearby wells and rivers which provide drinking water to 450,000 residents have been so polluted with PFAS that the Prefecture has had to seek alternative sources. Within Misawa Air base, the groundwater is contaminated and the potable water wells also contain high levels of PFAS.
In response to an enquiry from this newspaper, the USAF provided the following statement:
“The 18th Wing is focused on operating in a safe and compliant manner in accordance with the United States Department of Defense Japan Environmental Governing Standards. The referenced pool is a retention basin for the fire training area built in 1992 for the purpose of catching run-off during training. No Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) has been used at the Fire Training Area since 2000.”
The USAF did not provide any information about the current condition of the Kadena pond or whether clean-ups had been attempted.
Additional reporting by Shimoji Hiroya.