Since 2002, at least 270 environmental accidents on U.S. Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have contaminated land and local waterways but, until now, almost none of these incidents has been made public. U.S. Marine internal reports highlight serious flaws in training and suggest that the lessons of past accidents have not been effectively implemented. Moreover, recent USMC guidelines order service members not to inform Japanese authorities of accidents deemed “politically sensitive”, raising concerns that many incidents may have gone unreported.
Catalogued in 403 pages of USMC handbooks and reports obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the accidents occurred on three of the USMC’s most important installations on Okinawa: MCAS Futenma, Camp Hansen and Camp Schwab. The earliest report is dated June 2002 and the most recent June 2016.
Although the original FOIA request sought documents from 1995 to 2016, only three reports were released for the period between 1995 and 2005. Likewise, no reports for Camp Schwab were released for the years 2008 and 2010, nor were there any documents related to the crash of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter on Camp Hansen in August 2013. At the time, the crash caused a public outcry because it occurred near a dam and dangerous levels of arsenic were later discovered in the vicinity.1
According to the documents that were released, between 2005 and 2016 MCAS Futenma experienced 156 accidents resulting in the release of 14,003 liters of fuels (including jet fuels and diesel). Between 2004 and 2016, Camp Hansen experienced 71 accidents, including the leak of 2596 liters of fuels and other substances such as 678 liters of antifreeze. Between 2002 and 2016, Camp Schwab experienced 43 incidents, involving 2628 liters of fuel; in 2002, there was a 4024-liter spill of mixed water/POL (Petroleum, Oils And Lubricants) – one of the largest of the recorded accidents.
Of the 270 accidents, it appears that only 6 were reported to Japanese authorities – 3 of which because the USMC required the help of local emergency services to clean up.
Environmental accident handbooks from 2013 and 2015 reveal that USMC staff are under orders not to inform Japanese officials of “non-emergency and/or politically sensitive incidents.” Only when an accident is deemed an emergency that poses a threat to people, drinking water or the environment off base, are marine staff permitted to notify Japanese authorities. The decision whether to classify an incident as “politically sensitive” is left in the hands of the USMC.
On October 28, Defense Minister Inada Tomomi, said she would seek clarification on the policy from the U.S. military and she would press them to report spills promptly to local authorities.2 At the time of publication of this article, the government of Japan had made no updates on the issue.
U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Maj. John Severns defended the policy: “The decision to notify ODB (Okinawa Defense Bureau) is made by USFJ in accordance with Joint Committee agreements,” Severns wrote by email. “These agreements with the Government of Japan describe what situations require notification.”
Even when the USMC decides to report incidents to the Japanese authorities, the FOIA-released documents reveal discrepancies about what is told Tokyo.
In June, 2016 an accident on MCAS Futenma resulted in the spill of 6908 liters of aviation fuel. The internal accident report suggests the accident was due to human error, however Japanese authorities were informed it occurred because of a “valve misalignment.”
Moreover, although USFJ told Japanese authorities the spill had been dealt with “immediately”, the documents reveal it wasn’t fully under control until the following day. USFJ did not inform the Japanese government of the scale of the incident, which ultimately necessitated the disposal of 11 208-liter drums of contaminated earth and 3028 liters of contaminated water.
After the accident, an inside source slammed the safety standards of the USMC at Futenma. The expert explained that the cause of the accident was marines overriding a safety solenoid with a plastic tie. “Such accidents are typical of the U.S. Marines. To put it bluntly, their work is lazy and they act stupidly,” he says.