Page 1 of 2 Okinawa: The Pentagonís Pacific junk heap
By Jon Mitchell
In June 2013, construction workers unearthed more than 20 rusty barrels from beneath a soccer pitch in Okinawa City. The land had once been part of Kadena Air Base - the Pentagon's largest installation in the Pacific region - but was returned to civilian usage in 1987. Tests revealed that the barrels contained two ingredients of military defoliants used in the Vietnam War - the herbicide 2,4,5-T and 2,3,7,8-TCDD dioxin. Levels of the highly toxic TCDD in nearby water measured 280 times safe limits. 
The Pentagon has repeatedly denied the storage of defoliants - including Agent Orange - on Okinawa.  Following the discovery, it distanced itself from the barrels; a spokesperson stated it was investigating if they had been buried after the land's return in 1987  and a US government-sponsored scientist suggested they may merely have contained kitchen or medical waste.  However, the conclusions of the Japanese and international scientific
community were unequivocal: Not only did the barrels disprove Pentagon denials of the presence of military defoliants in Japan, the polluted land posed a threat to the health of local residents and required immediate remediation. 
The Pentagon is the largest polluter on the planet.  Producing more toxic waste than the US's top three chemical manufacturers combined, in 2008 25,000 of its properties within the US were found to be contaminated. More than 100 of thee were classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as Superfund sites which necessitated urgent clean-up. 
Although Okinawa Island hosts more than 30 US bases - taking up 20% of its land - there has never been a concerted attempt to investigate levels of contamination within them. Unlike other nations with US bases such as South Korea and Germany, the Japanese government has no effective powers to conduct environmental checks, nor does the Pentagon have a duty to disclose to the public any contamination that it knows to exist. 
To date, most incidents of pollution have only become known when individual service members divulge details to the media or, as in the case of the barrels uncovered in Okinawa City, the Japanese authorities conduct tests following the return of military land.
Despite their limited scope, such disclosures offer a disturbing window into the contamination of Okinawa. Over the past seven decades, the island's sea, land and air have been contaminated with toxins including arsenic, depleted uranium, nerve gas and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. These substances have poisoned Okinawan civilians and US troops alike - and it is highly probable that they are damaging the health of those living on the island today. But, regardless of these risks, the Pentagon continues to do everything it can to evade responsibility for the damage its bases cause.
The history of US pollution on Okinawa is almost as long as its ongoing military presence. Following the end of World War Two, Okinawa earned the nickname the "Junk Heap of the Pacific" due to the large volume of surplus supplies abandoned there.  During this period, one of the first known instances of contamination occurred when eight residents of Iheya Village were killed by arsenic poisoning from a nearby US compound in 1947. 
The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco granted the Pentagon full control of Okinawa and, as the military seized large tracts of civilian land to convert into bases, the dangers of pollution grew. Fuel leaks saturated the ground, industrial-grade detergents flowed from runways into nearby streams and solvents were flushed away without regard to where they ended up.
Such lax environmental controls were common on US military bases all over the world at this time, but Okinawa's problems were exacerbated by the geo-political gray zone in which it existed. Throughout the 1945 - 1972 US occupation, the island was not protected by American law or the Japanese constitution, so the Pentagon stored large stockpiles of chemical and atomic weapons there - and nuclear-powered submarines made regular pit-stops to Okinawa.
In September 1968, Japanese newspapers reported that radioactive cobalt-60 had been detected in Naha Port - believed by scientists to have emanated from visiting US subs. Three Okinawan divers reported being sickened by their exposure to the substance which accumulated in mud at the bottom of the harbor. 
The next year, the Wall Street Journal broke the news of a leak of nerve gas at Chibana Ammunition Depot, near Kadena Air Base, that hospitalized more than 20 US service members. Precise details of the subsequent mop-up operation remained hidden until July this year when US veterans stationed on the island at the time described how tons of the chemical munitions had been dumped off Okinawa's coast. 
Experts estimate that the metal containers holding these poisons corrode after 50 years, threatening the health of fishing crews and coastal communities today.
During the Vietnam War, Okinawa served as the Pentagon's primary staging post for the conflict. Led by the US Army's 2nd Logistics Division, the military channeled the majority of its supplies - including ammunition, coffins and, now it seems, Agent Orange - via the island's ports. This transportation was a two-way street; surplus and damaged materiel was also returned from the war zone to Okinawa for re-processing.
In 1969, US Army Chemical Corps Second Lieutenant Lindsay Pe1terson was the officer in charge of these retrograde supplies at Hamby Outside Storage Area, central Okinawa. In a recent interview, he recalled how damaged barrels of Agent Orange were among chemicals shipped to the island. "Agent Orange was processed through the port at Naha and trucked to the Hamby Open Storage Area. When I arrived, there were around 10,000 barrels. Most of them were leaking so we had to empty them into new 55 gallon (208 liter) drums." 
Peterson recalls how the re-drumming process saturated his crew with defoliants. He is among hundreds of seriously ill US veterans who believe their sicknesses were caused by exposure to dioxin-tainted defoliants while serving on Okinawa. Although the US government has refused to help the majority of these veterans, in 2008 it awarded compensation to a former marine warehouseman suffering from Hodgkin's lymphoma and type 2 diabetes mellitus sparked by handling Agent Orange-contaminated supplies brought back to Okinawa from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. 
Other US veterans have alleged that surplus stocks of Agent Orange were buried during the 1960s and '70s on Okinawan installations including Hamby Air Base, MCAS Futenma and Kadena Air Base. 
With the benefit of hindsight such practices seem unfathomable but, at the time, the burial of Agent Orange was standard military operating procedure. For example, a US Army handbook from 1971 titled "Tactical Employment of Herbicides" states:
Used containers and surplus quantities of ORANGE should be buried in deep pits at locations where there will be the least possibility of agent leaching into water supplies or cultivated crop areas.
In addition to Okinawa, burials of surplus military herbicides also took place on Guam - where, despite allegations from US service members, the Pentagon continues to deny the presence of such substances. 
Other US veterans and Okinawa civilians recall how surplus stocks of Agent Orange were sold on the black market to local farmers who valued its potent weed-killing power. The risks of the unregulated sale of hazardous substances to those lacking the necessary safety training became clear in 1971 when large volumes of pentachlorophenol herbicides - obtained from the US military by a civilian company - were dumped in the Haebaru and Gushikami districts of southern Okinawa.
The chemicals leaked into the Kokuba River and the water supply to 30,000 people had to be halted; children attending local schools suffered from abdominal pains and nausea. 
US government correspondence reveals the reaction of the authorities to such pollution during this period. In August 1975, following a leak of detergents containing poisonous hexavalent chromium at Machinato Service Area, the US consulate in Naha sent a series of updates to the State Department in Washington. Dismissing the spill as a "flap", it concluded "the newspapers and the leftists will certainly make good use of this issue against us". 
In September 1974, the US consulate had displayed a similar tone when Okinawa Governor Yara Chobyo voiced fears to the US military that its aging oil pipelines might leak. In a cable, the US consulate in Naha brushed off the governor's concerns, noting the "pipeline has now been added to leftist catalogue of evils of US base system".