The following news summaries are by Jeff Durbin. They are based mainly on information taken from The Asahi Evening News (AEN), The Daily Yomiuri (DY), and The Japan Times (JT).
An Environment Agency report calls for a law that requires environmental impact studies (EIS) prior to development. In 1984, following an earlier attempt by the Agency, the government enacted a law requiring EIS only for large-scale government projects of certain kinds. The report says Japan has fallen behind other developed countries, where the priority is reducing environmental impact rather than following the needs of business, and where people living outside the affected area may register their opinions. The Agency study also points out that EIS should be carried out at an early stage so that construction plans can be changed, and that Japan needs a strong law to comply with international agreements. The Central Environment Council, an influential Cabinet advisory group, is expected to examine the report, and a bill may be submitted to the Diet next year. (DY 1 June)
Tokyo residents living near major highways have filed a class action suit against the national and Tokyo governments, a highway corporation, and automakers. The 102 plaintiffs demand over 2 billion yen in damages for lung diseases, including bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema, that they claim to suffer due to diesel engine nitrogen oxide pollution. They also want an injunction against cars that exceed the current diesel-exhaust standard. The group contends that the government has not acted to prevent the pollution, and that the automakers have opposed emission standards. The automakers being sued are Toyota, Nissan Motor and Nissan Diesel Motor, Mitsubishi, Hino, Isuzu, and Mazda. (DY/JT 1 June)
Tsurumi Ward in Osaka is pushing for a 5 billion yen menagerie in Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park, with the hope of attracting one million visitors a year. The proposed site is the last habitat in Osaka for gray-headed lapwings (keri, Microsarcops cinereus) and already home to about 40 wild bird species. The plan calls for a 5-6000 square meter dome which imitates a tropical rain forest. Fifty or 60 species from around the world, including the Bird of Paradise from southeast Asia and the Quetzal from Central America, will be brought for display. The Wild Bird Society of Japan argues that some of the species are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Project director Tachibana Minoru says mainly zoo-bred birds will be acquired, and wild birds will be captured only if their populations are healthy. A Wild Bird Society member says, "The idea of a menagerie is anachronistic. If you want to see tropical birds, you should go to tropical regions." (JT 2 June)
Starting July 1, Hyogo Prefecture will prohibit engine idling except for emergency and refrigerated vehicles, and buses. Kyoto Prefecture has a similar law, but in Hyogo drivers may be fined up to 100,000 yen. Nationwide, the Environment Agency is leading a "Stop Idling" campaign, together with the Japan Trucking Association, a taxi association, and other organizations. (DY 8 June)
Little terns (ko-ajisashi, Sterna albifrons) have returned this spring to colonize a beach in Shizuoka Prefecture. A local environmental group, Sanctuary Japan, reported that the terns arrived in May and built 209 nests. No terns have bred in the last 5 years there while off-road vehicles were permitted to drive along the coast, but in December 1994 the prefectural government prohibited driving in a 10-kilometer long area. Little terns, a designated rare species in Japan, breed here after wintering in Australia. The newly protected stretch of beach is also a significant breeding area for loggerhead turtles (DY 8 June). An Environment Agency study shows little tern breeding areas disappearing because of construction. The tern prefers unvegetated places, often on reclaimed land, and these are popular for development. Just four nesting sites in Japan host more than a thousand terns (JT 10 May).
Fukui District prosecutors continue to question Monju workers as part of a citizens' lawsuit which contends that Donen, the state-run corporation that operates Monju, made false reports following the December 8 accident (JT 7 June). In June, the Science and Technology Agency and Donen simulated the sodium leak and found that if liquid sodium had contacted the concrete floor, a hydrogen explosion could have occurred. A 6-millimeter thick steel plate protected the concrete, but in both the actual accident and the simulation, sodium made holes in the plate. Experimenters did not speculate about the size of the possible explosion (DY 11 June). The manufacturers of the thermal sensor that broke due to metal fatigue, leading to the sodium leak, have admitted a design error. Engineers consulted the standard of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers while they were designing the sensor, but overlooked a crucial aspect (DY 25 May/1 June).
A private panel advising the Environment Agency has recommended a greater focus on environment-related aid to China, including joint projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel also said Japan must be a leader in Asia because of its experience dealing with pollution. Besides government aid, private industry should play a key role with wise investments and technology transfer. The panel will make its final proposals this summer; these will influence Japan's stance at international forums, such as next year's U.N. special environment assembly (JT 23 May). The Eco-Asia '96 conference in Japan in May brought out the mutual interests of neighboring countries. China now releases about 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere per year, and west winds carry some of it over Japan where it falls as acid rain. China's burgeoning economy needs more and more electricity, and high-sulphur coal plants are a major source. Government officials foresee Japan becoming a provider of waste-cutting technology to Asia (DY 12 June).
Trial electric vehicles on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, a U.N. World Heritage site, have performed well enough to win recommendation from the island government for use as buses and rental vehicles. With only 100 kilometers of roads and expensive gasoline, Yakushima is a good fit for electric vehicles. Bus tours and tourists are multiplying, and officials fear pollution damage to Yakushima's virgin forests, which contain cedar trees over a thousand years old. Now, electric cars cost about 3 times the average car. Japanese automakers, however, are learning to make better batteries and cheaper cars as they enter California's electric car market. To solve its air quality crisis, California, though it has backed down from its original mandate under pressure from auto and oil companies, will go ahead with a pilot program for selling electric vehicles starting in 2000. (DY 15 June; JT 9 June)
Japanese environmental groups are countering Aichi prefectures's bid for the World Expo 2005. They claim that an important forest in Seto, the proposed Expo site, will be destroyed. Expo promoters travelled to Paris in early June to make a presentation to the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), but they were preceded by the president of the Mount Monomi Watchers Association, a leader of the opposition to the Expo bid, who met with the BIE president. Expo promoters say the theme of the 2005 Expo would be "environmentally sound urban development," and that only 80 of 540 hectares at the site will be developed. Replying to charges that 11 Red Book-listed plant and animal species live in the forest, a prefectural official said the species live throughout central Japan. In September and October the BIE will visit Seto and Calgary, Canada, the only other Expo bidder. Environmental groups will answer by handing the BIE an environmental assessment. (JT 18 June)
One year after its installation, the Nagara River estuary dam is living up to expectations of both its critics and the Construction Ministry. Divisiveness has been with the project throughout its history, so the contradictory verdicts are no surprise. One contentious issue is the status of fish species such as ayu (sweetfish, Plecoglossus altivelis) and satsukimasu (May trout). The dam has passages for fish to pass through, and the Ministry says 1.7 million ayu have been counted so far. Unfortunately a lack of pre-dam data makes it difficult to draw conclusions. Many anglers say fish numbers are well down. Nakamura Mikio, with 30 years' experience on the Nagara fishing for yamato shijimi (corbicula shellfish), says, "I don't know much about figures and statistics, but the river will be dead if it continues to be like this." At least, he says, the dam floodgates should be opened regularly to normalize conditions somewhat. An unnamed member of a fishing cooperative in Mie Prefecture says recent comparisons are worthless because the shijimi catch began dropping as long ago as 1988, when dredging began. A Gifu University researcher says the formerly sandy riverbed is now like sludge. In addition, the Construction Ministry has released statistics for eutrophication, a standard measure of water quality, that fit within its projections. But a Nagoya professor claims Ministry projections were scaled up, and that in any case the readings indicate eutrophication worse than that of Lake Biwa, which has low water quality. The Construction Ministry's 17-member panel will monitor the Nagara for 5 years. (JT 19 June)
The Japan Environment Corporation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Environment Agency, will give out 670 million yen to environmental groups in fiscal 1996. The money comes from a fund set up by public and business contributions. In all, 187 groups working on projects in and out of Japan will receive money. (JT 21 June)
The presence of a U.S. military base in Okinawa, the 75,000-hectare Northern Training Area, has left the subtropical ecosystem nearly undisturbed since 1945. About 40 researchers from the University of Hawaii, Ryukyu University, and other institutions will survey the area for the first time, and expect to find one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, containing over 80 endangered species, such as the Okinawa rail (Yambaru kuina, Rallus okinawae) and the Yambaru long-armed scarabaeid beetle, the largest in Japan. The U.S. Defense Department budgeted 245,000 dollars for the survey, based on a 1991 U.S. law that requires it to manage important ecological sites on both U.S. and foreign bases. According to this April's agreement between Japan and the U.S., half of the Northern Training Area will be returned to Japan. Some local officials and residents want to develop the land, but the Environment Agency is campaigning for a national park. The survey team will spend 2 or 3 years studying plants, insects, birds, soil, and water, and their data will eventually be turned over to the Environment Agency to help write up a management plan (JT 28 May; DY 22 June). The April agreement will also close Futenma Air Station within 7 years, and move Futenma's heliport and golf course to Kadena Ammunition Depot. Last October, however, researchers completed a 20-month ecological survey of Kadena. After finding 490 plant species and 690 animal species in a 1880-hectare forest, including 15 on the endangered list, the survey team recommended that the area not be developed. Constructing the heliport and golf course would likely wipe out the forest. The Japanese government requires an environmental assessment before any construction can begin (AEN 24 May).
Alternatives to CFC's, used in place of ozone-depleting CFC's which contain chlorine, are having problems of their own. A study by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) showed that HFC 134a, used as a coolant and forming agent, has a global warming effect 1300 times greater than carbon dioxide; about 20,000 tons were produced in 1995, compared to 3000 in 1992. Two other alternatives, PFC 14 and PFC 116, have even greater effects. The Environment Agency and MITI will look for ways to reduce discharges (JT 23 May). Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions for Japan in fiscal 1994 set a new record of 343 million tons, the Environment Agency announced. The U.N. climate treaty sets the 1990 level of 320 million tons as the upper limit for 2000 (JT 22 June).
A research institute has found a way to decompose PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), and will work with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to commercialize the technique. The JR General Technology Research Institute discovered that ultraviolet rays and various bacteria can break down PCB's with no toxic effects. PCB's were used in machines and appliances because they resist heat and insulate well, but were found to be carcinogenic and banned in 1974. As many as 50,000 tons in Japan are still in storage because there is no safe disposal method; when burned they produce dioxin, a toxic gas. The institute hopes to apply the technique on a commercial scale within several years. (JT 25 June)
Japan's first commercial nuclear plant will be shut down during a 15-year process starting in March 1998, the Japan Atomic Power Co. announced. The Tokai plant in Ibaraki Prefecture opened in 1966. High maintenance and power generation costs have made the shutdown necessary. Over the first 5 years 16,000 nuclear fuel rods will be removed and sent to the U.K. for reprocessing. Then the area will be closed for 5-10 years until radioactivity subsides enough for workers to finish dismantling the facility. The company says 20,000 tons of radioactive waste will have to be disposed of. (JT 24-25 June)
The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission has opened in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Japan is asking for a catch of 50 minke whales per year in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, in addition to its quota of 450 in the Antarctic. The Japanese delegation claims communities in northern Japan depend on whaling for their economic livelihood and as an ancient cultural tradition. Japan, as well as Norway, is linking its arguments to 2 other requests before the commission this year: the U.S. is requesting a catch of 5 gray whales for the Makah people of Washington state, and Russia is asking that a far north aboriginal group be allowed to hunt 5 bowhead whales. Opponents of Japanese whaling argue that whaling in large factory ships and selling whalemeat mainly to expensive restaurants is neither scientific research nor traditional subsistence hunting. Japan's bid has been rejected 8 years in a row; to pass, it must obtain a three-quarters majority vote by the IWC. This year's meeting has also seen jousting over minke whale population estimates. Some countries are considering a total hunting ban, even if hunting becomes sustainable. According to a Japanese delegate, other countries, such as South Africa and Germany, are retreating from such a ban. Commercial whaling was banned by the IWC in 1982, but low-level hunting may continue for so-called research purposes. (JT 19/26/27 June; DY 26 June)
A citizen's group in Fukuoka Prefecture has filed suit to stop construction of a floating oil storage site near Kitakyushu city. The base, operated by the Japan National Oil Corp., will be able to hold 4.8 million kiloliters of crude oil, a week's supply for the nation. The group contends that the proposed site off the Shiroshima coast in the Sea of Hibiki has strong waves, making it dangerous for tankers to reach without mishap. Guidelines by the Transport Ministry say that floating storage tanks must be in protected waters. Japan National Oil says it has already received permission from the Fire Defense Agency and other authorities. The corporation has already built 9 storage bases in Japan. (JT 29 June)