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Trove of US documents on toxic substances in Okinawa may help veterans’ claims

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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A Welsh journalist in Japan has released a trove of U.S. government documents regarding pollutants at U.S. bases in the Pacific in hopes they will aid veterans seeking compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a variety of service-related ailments.

Jon Mitchell, 46, an investigative journalist and contracted correspondent for the Japan Times and Okinawa Times who lives in Yokohama, released over a dozen documents that he uncovered while writing “Poisoning the Pacific: The U.S. Military’s Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons and Agent Orange,” which was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October.

A security guard waits at the gate of U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler in Okinawa, Japan, Oct. 28, 2010, to check identifications and talk to drivers about weather conditions brought by Typhoon Chaba. (DoD photo)

The document release on Rowman & Littlefield’s website for “Poisoning the Pacific” caps off more than a decade of reporting by Mitchell. The documents cover the storage and leakage of chemical weapons, lead in the drinking water at schools on Kadena Air Base and “forever chemicals” like PFOS contamination at Kadena and Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Mitchell’s previous work has been used by American veterans seeking VA compensation, something he said he hopes will continue with the current crop of records.

“I really think active service members, their families and former service members, they need to be able to access this information so they can provide this documentary proof to their health care providers and also to [Veterans Affairs] when they’re filing for health claims for exposures that occurred in Japan and mainly on Okinawa,” Mitchell said by phone Oct. 16. “Because the bases are concentrated on Okinawa, the contamination is concentrated on Okinawa as well.”

During college, Mitchell studied U.S. history and the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

He first visited Okinawa in October 2010 on assignment for the Japan Times. He said locals in the northern jungle region expressed concerns while recalling U.S. service members spraying defoliants in and around their bases in the community.

“They told me the military had sprayed Agent Orange,” Mitchell said. “They said they were worried about the ongoing contamination of their land and the local base workers had been dying quite young.”

A decade of research

After those interviews, Mitchell spent years requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Act and tracking down American veterans who back island residents’ claims.

“The Americans were worried about the health of their children,” he said. “The Americans were sick with illnesses they believed had been caused by their own spraying of Agent Orange.”

The U.S. government maintains there is “no credible evidence of Agent Orange use, storage, testing, or transportation in Okinawa, and thus no evidence to support claims of exposure to Agent Orange during military service in Okinawa,” the Department of Veterans Affairs told Stars and Stripes in 2017. The VA has continuously denied wholesale exposure claims by veterans lacking documentary proof.

“VA currently has no evidence that Agent Orange or any other tactical herbicide was used on Okinawa that would warrant revision of current policies,” VA press secretary Christina Noel said in a statement emailed Oct. 31 to Stars and Stripes. “If credible evidence is obtained showing otherwise, VA will reconsider its current policy.”

Despite the government’s position, 108 barrels were found starting in 2013 buried on land adjacent to Kadena Air Base, Stars and Stripes previously reported. The barrels contained traces of cancer-causing dioxin and toxic ingredients of Agent Orange and other common pesticides and herbicides, Japan’s Defense Ministry said at the time. The discovery coincided with Mitchell’s reporting that earned him the 2015 Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s lifetime achievement award for press freedom.

In one U.S. Forces Japan talking paper from 1993 that Mitchell shared with Stars and Stripes three years ago, the U.S. government described how large amounts of hazardous chemicals and waste coming back from Vietnam were stacked in barrels at U.S. bases on the island. They included insect, rodent and plant killers; acids; alkalis; degreasers; and solvents.

The barrels, which appear to number in the thousands, according to photographs from the time, were exposed to the elements for long periods and leaked into the soil, which then seeped into the sea, killing fish offshore, according to the report Mitchell obtained.

Toxic substances like arsenic, asbestos, lead and hexavalent chromium have also been discovered on land near Camp Lester that has since reverted to Japanese ownership. In 2015 and 2016, habu snakes captured adjacent to Camp Kinser tested positive for toxic substances.

High levels of the hazardous organic compound perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, were detected in streams running through Kadena Air Base and in adjacent groundwater wells. Military officials later admitted the use of a firefighting foam, banned in Japan, that contains the compound.

There have been several high-profile spills of the firefighting foam in recent years, including about 60,000 gallons at MCAS Futenma on April 10.

In October 2015, the first U.S. veteran was awarded disability benefits related to Agent Orange exposure on Okinawa. A year later, a second veteran received benefits. Since then, at least 13 others have been successful, Mitchell said.

A Government Accountability Office report from 2018 found that the Defense Department’s official list of herbicide testing and storage locations outside of Vietnam “is inaccurate and incomplete” and that ships carrying Agent Orange to and from Vietnam did stop in Okinawa, among other locations in the region. It was unclear how much was loaded or unloaded.

The documents

The first documents of note released by Mitchell are an organizational history of the Army’s 267th Chemical Company from March 1966 and a 1969 Army chief of staff report titled, “Overseas Storage of Chemical Agents/Munitions.”

The organizational history confirms three movements of chemical weapons to Okinawa between 1963 and 1965. The weapons were removed in 1971 as part of Operation Red Hat, according to the 1987 report “Chemical Weapons Movement History Compilation,” which can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

The 1969 chief of staff report details a chemical weapons leak at the Chibana Army Ammunition Depot and discusses moving the weapons to Guam. The weapons listed include nerve agents VX and sarin and the blister agent sulfur mustard.

Both documents confirm Okinawa was a Project 112 chemical and biological warfare testing site. The DOD does not classify Okinawa as one, according to its Project 112 site on Health.mil.

Representatives from the VA did not respond to questions related to Project 112 posed by Stars and Stripes in October.

A 2015 document Mitchell unearthed, “Department of Defense Dependent Schools Lead Assessment Project, Kadena Air Base,” reported 165 fixtures in 106 rooms at DOD schools had lead levels above the 20 parts per billion action limit established by the EPA, the report said. There were eight high-risk rooms/faucets, 88 medium-risk rooms and 10 low-risk rooms.

A high-risk room or faucet means a probable drinking source like a kitchen sink, water fountain or breakroom sink, the report said. A medium-risk source is neither a probable drinking source, nor it can be ruled out as a probable drinking source, like a classroom or a bathroom sink.

“All high-risk faucets were placed out-of-order and permanently removed or replaced using zero-lead content fixtures,” a spokesman for Kadena’s 18th Wing wrote in a statement emailed Nov. 3 to Stars and Stripes, citing Kadena’s 18th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight. Signs telling students “Do not drink” were put up around medium-risk sources, an education campaign and a flushing program was launched.

Kadena resampled in 2015, 2017 and 2018, the statement said. Dozens of fixtures have been remediated.

Mitchell also uncovered Okinawa prefectural records from 2016 that detailed extremely high levels of PFOS and PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid, at a fire training area aboard MCAS Futenma. Testing found 1.8 micrograms per liter of PFOA and 27 micrograms per liter of PFOS, according to those records.

In early 2020, Japan established a combined safety threshold of 0.05 micrograms per liter for PFOS and PFOA.

A subsequent document from testing firm Maxxam Analytics, a Canadian company now known as Bureau Veritas, to Kadena’s 18th Wing indicated elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA at a fire training area retention basin.

Officials from Kadena’s 18th Wing did not respond to questions posed by Stars and Stripes about PFOS and PFOA.

The DOD has admitted to 651 contaminated sites in the U.S. but none in Japan, Mitchell said, something he believes will eventually change. U.S. military officials in Japan told Stars and Stripes last year the source of the PFOS and PFOA pollution on Okinawa is not necessarily U.S. military facilities.

“The U.S. works diligently to comply with the Japan Environmental Governing Standards,” U.S. Forces Japan wrote in a statement emailed to Stars and Stripes on Nov. 17. It touted an environmental agreement signed between the two nations in 2015 that enhanced cooperation on environmental matters, including establishing protocol to give Japanese authorities access to U.S. bases on Okinawa in the event of a spill or land return.

“Environmental sampling conducted over decades by relevant U.S. and Japan government authorities indicates that actions taken aboard our installations are effective in reducing impacts both on and off base,” the statement said. “We will continue to take a proactive and bilateral approach to environmental stewardship as the health and safety of our nations’ publics is equally as important as their defense.”

Mitchell, who has written three Japanese language books on military pollution, said more important than selling copies of his first English-language book is letting veterans know these documents exist and are available free.

“All of these documents provide support for veterans who are sick and veterans who believe their sickness is linked to their service on Okinawa,” Mitchell said. “The proof is there, and I think the military will do the right thing and admit to it.”

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