Environmental Assessment 101: Why It Matters For Okinawa
During working-level talks on May 12  in Washington, Japanese officials showed the U.S. side a draft government plan to build a replacement facility on pilings in the waters southwest of Cape Henoko. That plan would require a new environmental assessment under the ordinance of Okinawa Prefecture, but the current assessment can still be used if some conditions are met, including a limited modification of less than 10 hectares to the area covered by the original plan.
The key term here is environmental assessment - something that was never properly done under the old agreement.
Imagine if a new airport was proposed in a crowded city or near other sensitive areas, such as rivers, lakes or mountains. Just because Henoko, Okinawa is far away from the public eye, does it mean a massive construction should take place without any kind of timely, participatory and scientifically credible environmental assessment that is legitimate and relevant to decision-making processes, based on the best available scientific expertise, knowledge, data and indicators? Public involvement is also a major part of the environmental assessment process.
With some 90,000 people protesting against military bases in Okinawa recently, as well as demonstrations and events in Tokyo and Kyoto to support the removal of military bases, can there be any doubt that ordinary people in Japan are increasingly concerned about these issues?
Read more about environmental impact assessments and the decision at the UN COP6 meeting of the Convention of Biological Diversity regarding guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into environmental impact assessment legislation or processes:
Environmental impact assessments and biodiversity
...for the purpose of these guidelines, the following definitions are used for environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment:
1. Environmental impact assessment is a process of evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse. Although legislation and practice vary around the world, the fundamental components of an environmental impact assessment would necessarily involve the following stages:
1. Screening to determine which projects or developments require a full or partial impact assessment study;
2. Scoping to identify which potential impacts are relevant to assess, and to derive terms of reference for the impact assessment;
3. Impact assessment to predict and identify the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development taking into account inter-related consequences of the project proposal, and the socio-economic impacts;
4. Identifying mitigation measures (including not proceeding with the development, finding alternative designs or sites which avoid the impacts, incorporating safeguards in the design of the project, or providing compensation for adverse impacts);
5. Deciding whether to approve the project or not; and
6. Monitoring and evaluating the development activities, predicted impacts and proposed mitigation measures to ensure that unpredicted impacts or failed mitigation measures are identified and addressed in a timely fashion;
2. Strategic environmental assessment is the formalized, systematic and comprehensive process of identifying and evaluating the environmental consequences of proposed policies, plans or programmes to ensure that they are fully included and appropriately addressed at the earliest possible stage of decision-making on a par with economic and social considerations. Strategic environmental assessment, by its nature, covers a wider range of activities or a wider area and often over a longer time span than the environmental impact assessment of projects. Strategic environmental assessment might be applied to an entire sector (such as a national policy on energy for example) or to a geographical area, (for example, in the context of a regional development scheme).
The basic steps of strategic environmental assessment are similar to the steps in environmental impact assessment procedures, but the scope differs. Strategic environmental assessment does not replace or reduce the need for project-level environmental impact assessment, but it can help to streamline the incorporation of environmental concerns (including biodiversity) into the decision-making process, often making project-level environmental impact assessment a more effective process.
Without a proper environmental assessment, there is no way to properly determine how severe the impact will be from building a massive new v-shaped airport at Henoko, Okinawa. This is clearly not acceptable. Thus, environmental groups in both the U.S. and Japan have been making every effort this spring to urge president Obama and prime minister Hatoyama to cancel this project immediately:
April 23, 2010
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama
Public Relations Division, Cabinet Office
1-6-1 Nagata-cho Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo, Japan 100-8968
Dear President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama:
If the proposal to relocate the military operations of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to Camp Schwab and Henoko Bay moves forward as planned, it will destroy one of the last healthy coral-reef ecosystems in Okinawa and push several nationally and internationally protected species to the brink of extinction.
Under a 2006 bilateral agreement, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to relocate the contentious Futenma Air Station to Camp Schwab and Henoko Bay. However, this shortsighted plan did not take into consideration that the relocation would destroy a valued ecosystem, including nearly 400 types of coral and habitat for more than 1,000 species of fish. It would also hurt imperiled sea turtles and the iconic Okinawa dugong.
The critically endangered and culturally treasured dugong, a manatee-like creature, relies on the pristine conditions of Henoko Bay. Japan’s Mammalogical Society placed the dugong on its Red List of Mammals, estimating the population in Okinawa to be critically endangered. The Okinawa dugong has considerable cultural significance for the Okinawan people, and only about 50 dugongs are thought to remain in these waters. The base construction would imperil the last remaining critical habitat for the Okinawa dugong, destroying feeding trails and seagrass beds essential for dugong survival.
Not only is the Okinawa dugong locally revered, it has been internationally recognized as a species of special concern and status. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has designated the 2010 Year for Biodiversity as the year of the dugong. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has urged the Japanese government to establish a dugong protected area, as well as an action plan that would avoid or minimize adverse effects caused by the U.S. Marine Corps facility. The World Conservation Union’s dugong specialists have expressed similar concerns and have placed the dugong on their Red List of threatened species. The Okinawa dugong is also a federally listed endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. government’s Marine Mammal Commission fears the project would pose a serious threat to this mammal’s survival.
The base plan would devastate dugong habitat in Henoko Bay and nearby Oura Bay. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the Democratic Party of Japan have expressed the desire to renegotiate the 2006 agreement and cancel plans to relocate the base. Local residents have voted against the airbase project in a referendum, and now Okinawa’s Prefectural Assembly has unanimously passed a resolution asking Prime Minister Hatoyama to move the Marine Corps air operations off the island. The prime minister has announced he will wait until the end of May 2010 to decide whether to proceed with the relocation as planned in the 2006 U.S.-Japan realignment agreement, or whether he will attempt to negotiate with the United States for an alternate site.
We urge you to renegotiate the terms of the 2006 realignment agreement and abandon this destructive project in order to ensure that the Okinawa dugong has a fighting chance at celebrating its importance in 2010 and years to come. By canceling the plan to construct an airbase near Henoko Bay, you will protect a globally important ocean ecosystem and some of the best remaining habitat for the Okinawa dugong. You have the ability and duty to alter the course of this devastating plan, but time is of the essence. We urge you to cancel this project immediately.
Sakurai Kunitoshi, president of Okinawa University and a specialist on environmental assessment law, argues that since 2005 Japanese governments have been in breach of the Environmental Assessment Law in the way they have pursued the Futenma Replacement Facility. Therefore, the process must be reopened. He concludes that any serious and internationally credible EIA would conclude that the FRF cannot be built at Henoko. If Sakurai is right, the Japanese government’s EIA is fatally flawed and an internationally credible, independent scientific survey has to be launched.
Do read Sakurai Kunitoshi's remarkable article, translated at Japan Focus:
The Guam Treaty as a Modern “Disposal” of the Ryukyus
The coastal areas of Henoko are classified as rank 1 (areas to be strictly protected) under the Okinawa Prefectural Government’s Guidelines for Environmental Protection. They require special care. That is to say, this area has extraordinary importance for the environment. For example, the massive colony of blue coral found a few years ago in the northern Oura Bay (near Henoko) turned out to be equivalent in size and rarity to its famed counterpart in Shiraho, Ishigaki-Island. No matter how careful they may be about the protection of the environment, as long as they continue to build bases, these environments will continue to perish. Despite references in the Henoko EIA to “concern for the environment”, since there is no option to stop the project it amounts in fact to a “death sentence”.
Map of U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa from ANU Asia Pacific Research, Background Briefing by Yui Akiko, Dec. 2004
Okinawa in 2004: Peace and Environment Movements Coming Together on the Henoko U.S. Base Issue
In the early morning of April 19  a team from the Naha Defense Facilities Administration Bureau (NDFAB), the Okinawa branch of the National Defense Facilities Administration Agency, set out with the intention of driving 63 stakes into the sea bottom off Henoko, as the first step in their plan to bore for soil samples under where the new base is to be built. The survey was originally scheduled for 2003 but was carried over into this year. On the Henoko shore the NDFAB officials were stopped by a group of residents and their supporters, who had learned the officials were coming and had been waiting for them since 5 a.m. The sit-in that began that morning has continued without letup to the time of this writing. Initiated by Henoko's “Society for the Protection of Life,” Nago's “Association to Oppose the Heliport Base,” and the “Okinawa Citizens Network for Peace” which comprises 32 peace, human rights, environment, and women's groups, this action spread rapidly, involving more and more citizens. These groups called upon broader public to come together to join the daily on-the-spot monitoring and surveillance on the Henoko shore. For this purpose, a newer action group called the “Okinawa Dugong Environmental Assessment Monitors Group” (A hard-to-translate name that seeks to answer the question, “Who will assess the assessors?” Monitors Group for short) was organized as the core of NDFAB watch in Henoko. This activity has been joined by quite a few prefectural and municipal assembly representatives and members of political parties who staged sit-ins in the Henoko beach.
The NDFAB has been adamant on the base building project. On April 28 it served notice to the public about the upcoming environmental assessment and announced that the assessment manual was open to anyone who wanted to come into the office to read it. The assessment referred to here is separate from the boring survey. It is the initial required procedure for the construction of the offshore base itself.