In recent years, the drinking water for some 450,000 Okinawa residents has been contaminated with PFOS and PFOA, toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam at Kadena Air Base. The largest-scale incident of US military contamination in the island’s history, it is the latest in seven-and-a-half decades of environmental pollution which now Okinawa Times has compiled into a timeline highlighting some of the worst instances.
Drinking water supplies have been contaminated by dumps and spills of chemicals throughout the postwar period. In 1947, eight Iheya island residents died from suspected arsenic poisoning linked to the military’s disposal of chemicals then, during the 1950s and ‘60s, leaks of fuel contaminated wells near Kadena Air Base so badly their water could be set alight. After the 1972 Reversion, too, large spills of fuel, diesel and sewage from bases continued to impact the sea and rivers.
Following WW2, the United States military nicknamed Okinawa “The Junk Heap of the Pacific” and it dumped waste at sea and buried it throughout the island, some of which was discovered in later years. In 1981, Marines accidentally dug up 100+ chemical barrels buried by their predecessors within MCAS Futenma, then in 2002, another 187 barrels containing a tar-like substance were unearthed on former military land in Chatan Town; starting in 2013, 100+ barrels containing the ingredients of Agent Orange, PCB and other toxic substances were found beneath a soccer pitch in Okinawa City. Elsewhere severe contamination has been found on ex-military land including the former Onna Communication Site, returned parts of Camp Kuwae, Yomitan Village and the closed Nishi Futenma housing area.
During US rule, Okinawa possessed one of the planet’s largest stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and sometimes there were accidents. In 1955, the first test-firing of a nuclear cannon (with a non-nuclear shell) broke windows in a school, injuring students, then in 1959 a Nike nuclear rocket was mistakenly fired into Naha port; in 1969, 24 Americans were injured in a nerve agent leak at Chibana Ammunition Depot. In the early 1960s, the US conducted at least 11 biological weapons tests with rice blast at Shuri, Ishikawa and Nago City; meanwhile today the US government is paying compensation to at least 21 veterans for their exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa. More recently, in the mid-1990s, USMC jets strafed Tori Shima with radioactive depleted uranium, leaving up to 188 kilograms on the island; the military claimed the incident was a mistake.
Negligence has been the root of some of the largest incidents. For example, in 2013, a Marine caused a 19,000-liter leak of sewage at Camp Foster by pouring cooking oil down a sink; then in 2015, a drunk Marine trespassed into a hangar at Kadena Air Base and triggered its sprinkler system, releasing 1510 liters of firefighting foam.
Under the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement, the US military is not responsible for clean-up of contaminated land; nor are Japanese authorities allowed to access bases to check for pollution. To date, Japanese taxpayers have paid at least 12.9 billion yen to pay for the restoration – including contamination clean-up – of land returned to civilian usage on Okinawa.
Mainland bases - notably Yokosuka Naval Base, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Yokota Air Base, Tokyo – have also caused pollution but on Okinawa the problems have been far worse due to the presence of weapons of mass destruction and the island’s intensive use during the Korean and Vietnam Wars; today, as PFOS contamination proves, the concentration of bases in the prefecture concentrates contamination here, too.