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Environmentalists challenge base relocation in Okinawa

Some residents and environmentalists in Okinawa, Japan, have long argued that the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab in Nago of the same prefecture would endanger the dugong, a marine mammal regarded as vulnerable to extinction.

Since the two allies agreed to move the air base to a site near Henoko Bay in 2006, opponents have called on the Tokyo government to cancel the plan, saying that the extensive land reclamation work for the relocation could jeopardize the rare species of sea cow.

The population of the creature in waters around the southernmost island is said to be less than 50.

Dugong has been classified as “critically endangered” on the Tokyo government’s list of endangered species. In 2006, Japan signed an agreement with the U.S. to relocate the Futenma air station in Ginowan, Okinawa, to a site near Henoko Bay in Nago.

Such opposition appears similar to that of South Korean environmentalists who have long tried to block the construction of a strategic naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju.

They have argued that the destruction of a “Gureombi” rock, needed for the construction, would lead to environmental degradation. Despite opposition, the Seoul government has pushed for the construction.

Formed by volcanic activities, the rock measuring 1.2 kilometers in length and 150 meters in width provides a habitat for endangered species such as striped shore crabs and narrow-mouthed toads.

The conflict-ridden project on Jeju calls for establishing a “military-civilian” compound on the island, 90 kilometers off the peninsula’s south coast, to provide piers and other related facilities to dock a mobile fleet of up to 20 naval vessels and some 150,000-ton cruisers.

Seoul officials said that the construction will help cope with contingencies in the southern sea area, secure the country’s maritime transportation routes and help boost the regional economy.

The latest tension in the U.S.-Japan alliance was sparked due to America’s ongoing deployment of the new MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to Okinawa.

Citing a series of accidents involving Osprey aircraft, Okinawans have expressed strong safety concerns and opposed the deployment. The latest crash took place in June in Florida during a training mission, injuring the five crew members aboard.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima threatened earlier this month to call for the shutdown of all U.S. bases in his prefecture if the U.S. pushed ahead with the planned deployment of the controversial aircraft.

The U.S. has already sent the new fleet to Okinawa to replace aging CH-46 helicopters. The U.S. plans to send 12 Ospreys first to the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture in late July. They would then be transferred to the Futenma base in Okinawa in mid-August.

The U.S. military says that the new aircraft will strengthen its commitment to the defense of Japan, and perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The Osprey is a multi-mission aircraft with both a vertical takeoff and landing, and short takeoff and landing capabilities.

Apart from the issues involving the dugong and the Osprey, some residents have found justification for their calls for the U.S. troop pullout from continuing military accidents or crimes involving U.S. service members.

By Song Sang-ho

(sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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