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).
The director general of the Environment Agency, Iwatare Sukio, said in a news conference that Japan must regulate dioxin, a toxic byproduct of chlorine. Dioxin has been found around incinerators. Additionally, last summer the Agency found high dioxin concentrations in the seabed near Teshima Island in Kagawa Prefecture, the site of an abandoned toxic waste dump. So far the company responsible has failed to clean up the dump as ordered by the prefecture. (JT 17 Feb)
The chemical company Showa Denko settled out-of-court with 91 people in Niigata Prefecture suffering from Minamata disease. In 1965 Showa Denko dumped mercury compounds into the Agano River. The 91 are not officially certified as Minamata disease victims, but a government plan instituted last year makes it easier for uncertified victims to seek compensation. Each person will receive 2.6 million yen, and Showa Denko will also give 440 million yen to patients' organizations. (DY 24 Feb)
Rubble from the Great Hanshin Earthquake has been cleared away faster than anticipated, but in the cleanup rush asbestos and dioxin have been released into the air and soil. In Kobe and Nishinomiya, the Environment Agency found high levels of asbestos, due to the failure of disposal companies to take proper care with the asbestos in some collapsed buildings. At other sites, a researcher from Setsunan University found large amounts of dioxin, caused by the indiscriminate burning of debris. In the aftermath of the earthquake, local governments paid disposal companies higher-than-normal rates, which attracted firms from around the country. (JT 2 Mar)
In Osaka's Nishiyodogawa-ku, air pollution victims will spend 1.5 billion yen of their 3.9 billion yen court settlement to improve their district's environment. Last year, after a 17-year legal fight with companies, the national government, and the Hanshin Expressway Public Corporation, the residents settled with 10 companies; the government and Hanshin Expressway are appealing to a higher court. Factories and the expressway have contaminated soil, and released into the air high levels of sulfuric acid and nitrogen oxide. The case is the first in Japan in which auto emissions have been tied to respiratory illness. The 350 plaintiffs still living suffer from chronic respiratory diseases. In February they established the Center for the Redevelopment of Pollution-Damaged Areas in Japan, which will help with clean-up, and work with other pollution victims in Japan and southeast Asia. The group has already called in experts to decide how to plant greenspaces. On a wider scale, the Center has co-sponsored, with the city of Osaka and the Environment Agency, symposia on how to heal pollution-damaged areas. The Center's Moriwaki Kimio says, "Despite our differences and arguments, we want to work together with government and industry." (JT 17 Mar; Kansai Time Out, May)
Twenty-three miners have won 396 million yen from Mitsubishi Materials and two subsidiaries, one of the largest awards ever for such a case. The Sendai District Court ruled that the companies did not adequately protect the miners from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, which is caused by inhaling metal dust. The 23 worked at lead and zinc mines in Miyagi Prefecture. (JT 23 Mar; DY 23 Mar)
Due to strong lobbying by business, the new Air Pollution Control Law will depend on companies to voluntarily cut back on chemical emissions. Motorcycle exhaust is specifically regulated, along with the release of asbestos when building are torn down. However, no new chemicals were added to the regulations, which include six pollutants. For comparison, the U.S. Clean Air Act covers 189 pollutants. The Environment Agency says the next to be listed will be benzene, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene. Industries, though, claim that health studies for these and other pollutants are insufficient. They also say voluntary reduction of emissions is more effective than enforced compliance because, with their reputations at stake, companies must continually improve anti-pollution measures. After three years the Law will be reviewed. (JT 4 May)
Three hundred thousand climbers trudging up Mt. Fuji each summer leave their share of garbage, and the Forestry Agency is considering how to clean it up. Between the summit and the 5th station, the traditional starting point, there are places to put garbage, but nighttime climbers especially do not always throw away their trash at designated spots. The agency has suggested a climbers' fund to pay for facilities for garbage and human waste. Now, part-time workers must be hired for clean-up. Any solution will have to take into account political boundaries on Fuji. Ownership of the mountain is split among Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, the national government, and Sengen Shrine. (DY 5 May)
Japan has offered to host next year's global warming conference, which will set carbon dioxide levels beyond the turn of the century. The international convention, first agreed to at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, calls for 2000 emissions to match 1990 outputs. The 1997 conference is significant because it will be the first to definitively set post-2000 emission targets. Negotiations in the past have split between industrialized and developing nations, and Environment Agency chief Iwatare Sukio says Japan should bridge this gap. This year's meeting will be in Geneva in July, and nations attending are expected to accept Japan's offer (JT 5/18 May). In 1994 the government said reaching the Earth Summit pledge would not be possible, but the Environment Agency now says Japan has the technical ability to hold 2000 emissions at 1990 levels, "although serious efforts on the policy front are needed." More efficient power generators and houses, and greater nuclear power production will make the targets possible, the agency said (JT 22 May).
After 16 years in the courts, the largest group of Minamata victims held a signing ceremony in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture after settling with Chisso Corp. The government helped to broker the compromise. The nearly 2000 victims are not officially recognized as Minamata disease patients, but medical examinations earlier this year showed over 95% of the plaintiffs were eligible for payments of 2.6 million yen each, plus 22,000 yen per month in medical expenses. The other 88 victims were voted funds by the group out of a separate legal settlement. In return for accepting the compensation, victims in Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo dropped lawsuits against the national government and Kumamoto Prefecture. A law professor observing the case commented that the result is ultimately unsatisfactory because the plaintiffs were not officially recognized as Minamata disease victims, and the government took no responsibility. A leader of the plaintiffs' group, however, said victims were "hoping to receive compensation while we're still alive." About 3000 people have been certified as Minamata sufferers, and were compensated in 1973. The only remaining lawsuit involves 58 people in Osaka District Court. In the 1950's and 1960's, Chisso Corp. discharged mercury-contaminated wastewater into Minamata Bay in Kyushu; hundreds of residents died, and thousands became disabled from eating seafood. (JT/DY 23 May)
The Kitakyushu city government and 60 local companies are using their pollution-fighting expertise to benefit businesses and clean up the environment. In the 1960's, steel, chemical, and other heavy industries in Kitakyushu caused severe pollution, and the city passed some of the first clean-air measures in Japan. Now Kitakyushu is subsidizing a study group which will promote anti-pollution technologies, and focus on cleaner manufacturing practices. Other local governments, including the cities of Nagasaki and Nagoya, and Yamaguchi and Niigata Prefectures are following suit. Soon a national network of city and prefectural governments may be formed to exchange clean technology on a wider scale. (JT 24 May)
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)
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)
Alternatives to CFCs, used in place of ozone-depleting CFCs 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 PCBs with no toxic effects. PCBs 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 is considering a so-called carbon tax to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Both the Environment Agency and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) are studying how to implement a tax and promote other emission-reducing strategies. The Agency says that a 2 yen per liter gasoline tax could in turn finance other energy conservation efforts, and enable Japan to meet the conditions of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, which calls for carbon dioxide levels in 2000 not to exceed 1990 figures. Businesses, worried about a loss of competitiveness, generally oppose environment taxes and instead favor voluntary reductions. But with Japan hosting next year's global warming conference, even MITI, which has traditionally opposed such taxes, may change its mind. Five countries, including Norway, Sweden, and Finland, now have a carbon tax. Japan's fiscal 1995 emissions were 7.2 percent higher than in 1990 (JT 28-29 June/3 July). At this year's conference in Geneva, Japan backed European Union and U.S. proposals to set mandatory targets for carbon dioxide emissions. Environment Agency chief Iwatare Sukio said, however, "it is hard to say what percentage." According to his proposal, each nation's cut would depend on its particular situation. The Agency announced that the 1997 conference will be held in Kyoto in December (DY 19 July).
The National Space Development Agency has placed a satellite into orbit that is designed to monitor the global environment. Known as Midori ("green"), the satellite has sensors for detecting ocean temperatures and surface wind, greenhouse gases, and the ozone layer. Data will be gathered in cooperation with the U.S. and will be available worldwide to scientists. (DY/JT 20 Aug)
Japan has started work on various technologies to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which leads to global warming. Along with Norway and the U.S., Japan is considering whether release at sea is feasible. In one plan, carbon dioxide will be collected and put in ships, then pumped through pipes to 1000 meters under the surface. Researchers must still find ways to nullify the side effects. Also, the research institute of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry will commission projects to chemically stabilize carbon dioxide, a process which converts it to calcium carbonate, which is harmless. (DY 20 Aug)
The Environment Agency has listed 22 toxic pollutants for regulation. Companies will not be obligated to reduce emissions of the listed substances, but are being requested to do so in advance of next spring's revision of the Air Pollution Control Law. Among other substances, the Agency designated benzene, dioxin, mercury compounds, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, and hexavalent chromium compounds. The pollutants may cause cancer or other diseases. The current law has mandatory regulations for only six substances. (JT 23 Aug)
In Koto Ward, Tokyo, 79 plaintiffs lost a suit to force Nippon Chemical and the Tokyo metropolitan government to remove an underground waste storage container from government land in the ward. In 1979 the Tokyo government and the company agreed to build a concrete tank to dispose of slag containing hexavalent chromium. The government subsequently built a park on the land. Local residents opposed the project but were unable to stop it, and now worry that the chromium will enter the soil. A District Court judge ruled that the slag is now too difficult to move. The plaintiffs plan to appeal. (DY 28 Aug)
The Health and Welfare Ministry wants to develop a system to follow the status of industrial waste each step of the way, in order to prevent illegal disposal. A central computer will retrieve information from terminals located at companies that handle or dispose of waste. Then, via the central computer companies or local governments will be able to know at a glance the status of the waste. The Ministry plans to start the system after the industrial waste law is revised next year, but will have to address the cost burden to small companies. Since 1991 a similar system has been in place, but it lacks real-time information and requires much paperwork. (DY/JT 31 Aug)
Fifty-eight Minamata disease victims in Kansai have resumed their lawsuit in Osaka High Court against the national and Kumamoto Prefecture governments. They are appealing a district court judgement that held the government was not responsible for the disaster. In May of this year over 1500 victims finally compromised with the government and Chisso Corp., and received cash settlements (see May 23, 1996). But the Kansai victims have refused all compromises. One plaintiff said, "Getting money does not end the matter. We want the government to admit responsibility." In the 1950s, mercury discharges into Minamata Bay by Chisso poisoned the water and contaminated seafood (JT 26 Sep). Meanwhile, in Fukuoka High Court, another group of victims lost a retrial which claimed damages because the government took too long to recognize them. The plaintiffs had waited up to nine years for benefits, but the Fukuoka judge ruled that in the 1970s mercury poisoning was not well understood, and that doctors needed a long time to make the thousands of diagnoses. The plaintiffs had first filed suit in 1978 and won the case, but in 1991 the Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Six of the 24 original plaintiffs have died (JT 29 Sep).
The Sendai High Court has mediated a settlement under which Mitsubishi Materials Corp. will pay 1.64 billion yen to 107 miners suffering from lung disease. The miners worked in the Hosokura mine in Miyagi Prefecture, and contracted pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, from mine dust. In March of this year, Mitsubishi was ordered by Sendai District Court to pay 396 million yen to 23 plaintiffs, but the decision was appealed by both sides. The High Court said mine operators did not provide adequate safety measures. The settlement is the highest ever for a lung disease case, and is expected to influence other lawsuits filed by miners in Japan. (JT 16 Oct)
Research by Nagoya University at a South Korean company shows that the organic solvent 2-bromopropane, a replacement for ozone-depleting gases, may reduce men's sperm counts and suspend menstruation in women. The 2-bromopropane in the study was used as a cleaner in an electronic parts manufacturing plant. The results were announced at a scientific meeting in Tokyo. (JT 25 Oct)
There has been little improvement in air quality in large Japanese cities despite a law passed two years ago to reduce diesel exhaust. The Environment Agency reported levels of nitrogen oxides and suspended particulate matter from over 2000 measurement stations around the nation. The areas in which emission levels most often exceeded standards were Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka, and Hyogo prefectures. In addition, the average concentration of nitrogen dioxide increased slightly from fiscal 1994 (DY 12 Oct). The Environment Agency has ordered the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to directly supervise the disposal of waste resulting from the nitrogen oxide measuring process. Tokyo contracts the work to a private company. The 81 measuring stations in Tokyo produce thousands of liters of liquid waste, which is subject to special disposal laws (DY 24 Oct). In related news, the Tokyo government will ask large truck companies to voluntarily reduce nitrogen oxide exhaust output by 10 percent over the next 5 years. About 650 companies, each owning more than 50 trucks, are targeted. Small companies will be asked to join the program in 1998 (AEN 30 Oct).
After discussing the feasibility of a tax on carbon dioxide emissions (see July 19, 1996), a committee has made its report to the director of the Environment Agency. The report recommends a tax, together with subsidies for companies that reduce their emissions. Businesses have consistently opposed the carbon tax, but the report says Japan's action plan for reducing emissions falls short of its goals. In 1994, carbon dioxide levels were 7 percent higher than in 1990, despite the government enacting 460 measures to reduce output. The U.N. Convention on Climate Change stipulates that 2000 levels must not exceed 1990 levels. Japan's emissions in 1994 were equivalent to the total volume produced by Africa or South America. (DY 31 Oct)
The Japanese government has drafted a proposal ahead of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, to be held in Kyoto in December 1997. Before the end of this year, the more than 150 signatories will start negotiating new targets for greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto conference is expected to set binding targets for reducing emissions after 2000. The Japanese proposal would give countries a choice of two targets: the first, a rate of reduction of output; the second, a per capita output. The proposal also calls for countries to devise national programs to meet the targets. In Kyoto, Japan hopes to "play a leading role," a government official said. But Japan will likely be criticized for giving itself an escape hatch: with its population slowly increasing for now, Japan can choose the per capita option and not be forced to severely limit emissions. Trends show that Japan's carbon dioxide output will continue to rise until 2020. (JT 1 Nov)
The Takamatsu District Court has ordered a waste disposal company to compensate Teshima Island residents, as well as clean up 510,000 tons of waste that it dumped there, including PCBs, lead, benzene, dioxin, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, waste oil and acid, and shredder dust. However, the company, Teshima Sogo Kanko Kaihatsu, is no longer in business and is unlikely to carry out the court's ruling. It has consistently violated court instructions, and Judge Yamawaki Masamichi called the case "a particularly wicked example of a default of an obligation." Since 1977, Teshima residents have asked Kagawa Prefecture to clean up the island and restore its name as a home of yellowtail fish and other seafood. Despite over a hundred inspections of the site by prefectural officials, dumping was not halted. Kagawa Prefecture so far has refused to pay for cleanup with public money, and companies that originally produced the waste will not pay because the prefecture never ruled the dump illegal. A scientific survey of the dump found dioxin in the groundwater, and oysters containing arsenic and dioxin. The Takamatsu court is the first in Japan to side with a citizens' request for waste removal. The history of this case is detailed by editor Maggie Suzuki on the Japan Environment Monitor home page. (DY/JT 27 Dec)
After 14 years in the courts, 401 Kawasaki residents have won 3.1 billion yen and apologies from 14 companies as compensation for suffering pollution-related diseases. One hundred thirty-seven of the plaintiffs have died since the suit was first filed. The settlement was engineered by the Tokyo High Court and Yokohama District Court. The companies include Tokyo Electric Power Co., NKK Corp., and East Japan Railway Co. The court would not link the plaintiffs' health problems to sulfur dioxide from automobiles, and also refused the plaintiffs' request that the government strengthen pollution regulations. The suit will continue against the Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. and national government (JT 21/22/26 Dec). In Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, another out-of-court settlement, this one after 13 years, awarded 1.39 billion yen to 183 victims of air pollution in the Mizushima industrial area. According to settlement terms, the plaintiffs will drop their demand that pollution be reduced (JT 20/27 Dec). The Osaka High Court has opened an appeal case by the government and the Hanshin Public Expressway Corp. after a lower court ruling last March blamed them for vehicle pollution and health problems in Nishiyodogawa Ward, Osaka (see March 17, 1996). At that time the plaintiffs settled with ten other companies (DY 6 Dec).
The town assembly of Mitake, Gifu Prefecture has voted 12-5 to hold a referendum to vote on the sale of town property for a waste disposal site. Opponents fear the site, near the Kiso River, could contaminate river water, which is used by millions of people in the Chubu region. The site would collect rubber, plastic, wood scraps, and other manufacturing debris. Events leading to the Mitake plebescite are dramatic. Since his election in April 1995, the mayor, Yanagawa Yoshiro, had openly questioned the environmental safety of the site, and the previous mayor's behind-doors approval of the project. The issue dominated a recent election campaign, and 12 new assembly members opposed to the project were voted in. Then last October 30 Yanagawa was attacked at his apartment by two men with baseball bats, and hospitalized for 40 days. Within a week citizens collected three times the number of signatures required for a referendum. Police suspect an attack by gangs that would benefit from the disposal site, but no arrests have been made. Yanagawa has been criticized in rightwing newsletters and had his phone wiretapped, and gang members appeared at residents' meetings. No date has been set for the plebescite, but it must be held by June. (JT 20/31 Dec; 15 Jan)
The Environment Agency has set stricter dioxin standards than its fellow ministry, Health and Welfare. Last June the Health and Welfare Ministry announced intake guidelines for dioxin at 10 picograms per day per kilogram of body weight. But the Environment Agency upped the ante with a limit of 5 picograms per day. The average daily intake in Japan is estimated to be between 0.3 and 3.5 picograms, but for people living near incinerators, intakes can be as high as 5.1 picograms (one picogram equals a trillionth of a gram). Dioxin, a chlorine-based chemical, has been discovered in fish and human breast milk in Japan. It can cause cancer and birth defects (JT 21 Dec; DY 24 Dec). In related news, the Health and Welfare Ministry has developed a strategy to reduce dioxin discharges from garbage incinerators, which release 80 to 90 percent of Japan's dioxin total. Because most dioxin escapes at the time incinerators are turned off, operators will have to run them 24 hours a day, with a maximum allowable density of 0.1 nanograms per square meter (a nanogram is a billionth of a gram). The Ministry says that if the measures are followed, in 20 years discharges will be less than one percent of current levels (JT 25 Jan).