Digging deeper. U.S. Marines unearth barrels of suspected Agent Orange at MCAS Futenma in the early 1980s.

The challenges of reporting military contamination on Okinawa are being overcome with collaboration, new technology and determined investigators.

Military installations are dirty places.

In the U.S. alone, there are almost 40,000 sites polluted by the Pentagon more than 140 of which are so contaminated they have been placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list of areas in need of federal remediation. Military pollutants include depleted uranium, chemical weapon waste, trichloroethylene, PCBs and pesticides. At USMC Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for example, between 1953 and 1987 water contamination exposed hundreds of thousands of troops and their families to industrial solvents and other chemicals forcing the government to enact special legislation in 2012 to aid survivors.

Given the extent of military contamination and its damage to human health, there is a compelling public duty for journalists to report the problem. However a number of challenges stand in our way. The Pentagon, citing national security concerns, can block the release of environmental surveys, and barbed wire and armed guards impede access to contaminated sites. More over, many service members with inside knowledge of pollution are afraid of speaking to the press for fear of reprisals.

Such obstacles to reporting are exacerbated in Japan. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) absolves the U.S. military from all responsibility to clean up its bases, so Japan’s tax payers fund 100 percent of remediation costs following the return of base land to civilian usage. Furthermore, the U.S. military is not required to grant local officials access to installations even when the safety of civilian neighbors is at risk. In August 2013, for example, after a USAF helicopter crashed near a dam providing water to the local Okinawan community, USFJ denied prefectural government officials entry to the site.

As the host of more than 30 U.S. military bases, Okinawa bears the burden of the Pentagon’s presence in Japan. It also suffers from the pollution. When the whole island was under U.S. jurisdiction between 1945 and 1972, it was the storage site of approximately 1200 nuclear warheads and 13,000 tons of chemical weapons. Yet, to date, the Pentagon has never conducted comprehensive environmental surveys of its bases on Okinawa; often the true extent of military contamination only becomes apparent after the return of land. Examples include Onna village, where high levels of mercury and PCBs hindered plans to redevelop military land returned in 1995, and Chatan town, which had to postpone a road widening project last year because of dangerous levels of lead found on former USFJ property.

For the past four years, I’ve been investigating U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and its risks to local residents, service members and their dependants. In 2012, Defoliated Island, a TV documentary based upon my work won an award for excellence from Japan’s Association of Commercial Broadcasters and this month will see the publication of my Japanese language book Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa.

Although Washington denies it stored Agent Orange on Okinawa during the Vietnam War, more than 250 U.S. veterans are suffering from illnesses they believe are caused by their exposure to it. They claim to have transported, stored, sprayed and, in some cases, buried Agent Orange on Okinawa. They have photos of barrels of defoliants on the island and even the U.S. military cites a stockpile of 25,000 barrels on Okinawa prior to 1972.

As an environmental contaminant, what makes Agent Orange particularly worrisome is its persistence. In South Vietnam, there are still around 30 dioxin hot spots on land formerly used by the U.S. military during the war; the Vietnamese Red Cross estimates the number of people sick from exposure exceeds 3 million.

As well as unearthing the secret history of Agent Orange on Okinawa, the book explores ways new technology can be harnessed for collaborative investigative journalism at a time when newsrooms have slashed their budgets for such reporting. During the past four years, a diverse group of people military whistleblowers, former C.I.A. staff, veterans and environmental scientists have pooled their skills to surmount the barriers to access on Okinawa erected by the Pentagon. Okinawan journalists have played especially decisive roles in this collaborative process. The island has a strong history of investigative journalism and reporters have often won national prizes for their work; in particular, Natsuko Shimabukuro, the Ryukyu Asahi Broad casting director of Defoliated Island, contributed vital knowledge, energy and connections to the hunt.

One illustration of how this collaborative approach bore fruit was the investigation into a leak of nerve agent that occurred at Chibana Ammunition Depot in 1969. By bringing together U.S. veterans, Okinawan journalists and archive reports, it was possible to triangulate a previously unreported dump of tons of sarin gas in Okinawa’s seas. At the time, such disposal was standard operating procedure for the U.S. military but it had never admitted to the practice on Okinawa. According to chemical weapons experts, the nerve gas dumped almost half a century ago poses a very real risk to coastal communities on the island today.

With a majority of Okinawans opposed to the large number of bases on their island, the Pentagon seems determined not to give residents more reason to resent its presence and it has mobilized its PR machine to rebut my research. In February 2013, it released a nine month in the making counter report on my coverage that concluded there was no proof Agent Orange was ever stored on the island. The report failed to note that the author hadn’t bothered to visit Okinawa or interview any of the veterans alleging exposure nor did the report mention that his previous research had received funding from the manufacturers of Agent Orange.

The report’s conclusion was predictable. The U.S. military has had more than half a century of practice in obfuscating about Agent Orange; in the 1970s when U.S. Vietnam War veterans first started developing symptoms of defoliant related illnesses, the government accused them of suffering from drug addiction or sexually transmitted diseases. It still refuses to help the millions of dioxin poisoned Vietnamese survivors. However what surprised me more than the Pentagon’s response was the reaction of some elected officials on Okinawa who declined to support health surveys of former base workers and displayed reluctance to act on veterans’ accounts of a large cache of defoliants buried beneath Chatan Town.

With officials unwilling to take action, the task has been taken up by civic groups in particular, the Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa.

“Okinawa Prefecture has not been addressing contamination issues seriously,” says Dr. Masami Kawamura, director of the network. “It always looks to the Japanese government not to Okinawan people which means they are unwilling to play a role in overseeing Tokyo’s policy.”

“A system to review and oversee the process of the government’s investigation and remediation needs to be established,” says Kawamura. “And through studying their actions, we should raise Okinawan people’s consciousness of contamination issues with the goal of building the capacity for cleanup.”

‘Okinawan people absolutely have a right to know where Agent Orange and similar pollutants were buried on their land’

In the U.S., too, there appears to be growing awareness of the poisonous legacy on Okinawa. In August, the Congressional Research Service cited an article I’d originally written for the Japan Times featuring whistleblown military documents that suggested officials had hidden massive PCB contamination at Kadena Air Base in the 1980s. Also, despite the Pentagon’s counter report, one seriously ill U.S. veteran was able to win his claim in October 2013 for exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa by citing military documents discovered by myself and fellow researchers and that case looks likely to open the floodgates for further wins.

Meanwhile, last year Washington and Tokyo announced that they would consider amending SOFA to allow more access for civilian authorities to survey U.S. bases prior to their return; the latest in the ongoing series of talks was held in September.

With concerns about military contamination so high, on Nov. 1 and 2 an international symposium titled “Agent Orange and the Politics of Poisons” will be held at Okinawa Christian University. Gathering experts from Canada, Vietnam, the U.S. and Japan as well as survivors of military contamination the symposium is the first of its kind to be held on Okinawa.

“Okinawan people absolutely have a right to know where Agent Orange and similar pollutants were buried on their land,” says Dr. Daniel Broudy, chair of the symposium’s organizing committee. “The symposium will draw attention to the reasons why, under the present SOFA, the people of the prefecture are dealing with the ongoing defilement of their land and water. We would ultimately like to create an ongoing public dialogue about military contamination . . . so the U.S. government will no longer be able to ignore the just demands of people living here.”

In the coming years, a number of U.S. bases on Okinawa are slated for closure, including parts of Machinato Service Area, one of the Vietnam Warera stockyards most often cited by veterans as an Agent Orange storage site, and ultimately MCAS Futenma. Many in the prefecture have pinned their hopes on the economic benefits brought by redevelopment of this land. Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture; the U.S. military takes up 10 percent of the land (18 percent of Okinawa’s main island) but contributes less than 5 percent to the economy.

To what extent military contamination hobbles these ambitions looks likely to be one of the most urgent issues facing the island in the years to come. Journalists have a responsibility to force transparency from both the Japanese and U.S. authorities in order to ensure a safe environment for all residents regardless of which side of the wire they live on.

On Oct. 30, Jon Mitchell, Drs. Daniel Broudy and Masami Kawamura will speak at a FCCJ press conference titled “Collateral damage: Agent Orange, military contamination and Okinawa.”
The international symposium, Agent Orange and the Politics of Poisons, will be held at Okinawa Christian University Nov. 1 & 2. Details at their website.

Jon Mitchell is an Asia-Pacific Journal associate who writes regularly for the Japan Times. He is the author of Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa, published this month.