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Japanese Incinerator Burns U.S.

March 27, 2000

ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan (AP) _ Dioxin season is just around the corner.

The wind at this U.S. Navy base outside Tokyo will shift with spring and blow from the south _ bringing with it toxin-laden smoke from a private garbage incinerator just beyond the base fence.

``On any given day you can go jogging down there, and this stuff is coming out,″ said Capt. Kevin P. McNamara, base commanding officer. ``You walk out your door in the morning, and you can smell the incinerator.″

Smoke from the plant has rolled into base housing complexes for years, posing a health threat and becoming a high-profile irritant between the U.S. government and Japan, home to some 52,000 American troops.

On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department announced it had filed a lawsuit in a Japanese court demanding an immediate halt to the incinerator operations.

The suit follows months of protests from Washington that culminated in a Japanese government promise this month to build a taller smokestack at the plant and install special filters to reduce emissions.

Military officials at Atsugi say it’s too soon to comment on the deal, concluded during a visit by Defense Secretary William Cohen.

But they say there’s a simpler solution _ shut down the plant.

``It needs to go away. That would be the best of all worlds,″ McNamara said. ``We’d love to see it closed.″

Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. Last summer, dioxin levels in the air were on average eight times the Japanese safety limit in areas of the base near the plant.

On the worst day measured, the toxin was 65 times the Japanese safety level, the U.S. military says. The worst soil sample on the base found dioxin at 165 times the Japanese benchmark.

Officials at Atsugi accuse the incinerator, operated by a company called Enviro-Tech, of burning illegal amounts of trash, thereby forcing the incinerator to work at lower temperatures that emit more toxins. They also accuse owner Tetsuro Murata of covering up activities at the plant and consistently fighting efforts to clean up emissions.

``It’s just an absolute disgrace,″ said Lt. Cmdr. James Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Japan.

Murata is not only fighting the U.S. Navy. He’s on trial with two colleagues for evading $7.6 million in corporate taxes, according to Yokohama District Court officials.

An official at Enviro-Tech said the company had no immediate comment on the U.S. lawsuit. However, the company has in the past denied resisting efforts to clean up emissions. Two of the plant’s three burners are currently shut down so special filters can be installed.

Atsugi is not the only place in Japan with a dioxin problem. The country is full of garbage incinerators, and some scientists believe dioxin pollution in Japan may be the worst in the world.

Residents living around the Navy facility have other complaints: noise pollution from its thundering jets. They are pushing for an end to nighttime landing and takeoff drills.

The incinerator dispute is part of broader tensions between Tokyo and Washington over the U.S. military presence, including efforts by Japan to reduce the estimated $5 billion it spends for U.S. troops, a move Washington resists.

As part of the deal reached during Cohen’s visit, Japan promised to build a 330-foot smokestack to better disperse emissions and to provide free, temporary off-base housing for all who wish it until the new smokestack is completed.

In the meantime, the 5,000 residents of Atsugi schedule their days around the haze.

Residents get daily warnings on air quality, and apartments and schoolrooms are equipped with air filters. Children are urged to stay inside and shut the windows on bad days.

At a base daycare center, building director Mechell Carter says it’s a shame the wind blows incinerator smoke toward the center at the time of year the children want most to go out to play _ summer.

``There are times when a week or two goes by and they can’t go outside,″ she said. ``The kids get frustrated.″

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On the Net: Atsugi U.S. Naval Air Facility’s incinerator page, http://www.atsugi.navy.mil/PAO/shinkampo/Index.html

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