(NaturalNews) A report in Japanese media suggests that the U.S. military discovered toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at its Kadena Air Base on Okinawa that dramatically exceeded acceptable safety levels but failed to alert Japanese authorities and then subsequently hid information about the contamination for decades.
An in-house report obtained by The Japan Times says the determination was made in the late 1980s, but because the U.S. military has neither publicly identified the hazard nor acknowledged it, the contaminant remains today and is still potentially harmful to humans:
According to the documents, base officials discovered the pollution following a November 1986 accident in which 20 gallons (76 liters) of oil spilled from an electrical transformer at an open storage area within Kadena. Subsequent environmental tests conducted by a military laboratory in the U.S. revealed in March 1987 that the spilled oil contained PCBs at a concentration of 214 parts per million (ppm) -- but the soil was contaminated at 2,290 ppm. A second round of tests, returned in October 1987, showed soil contamination of 5,535 ppm.
The report -- written on Dec. 1, 1987 -- concluded that the pollution must have predated the accident: "It appears that the incident [the November 1986 spill] merely 'opened a can of worms.' Soil sampling in the open storage yard would have yielded high PCB levels whether the spill had occurred or not."
PCBs remain in the environment for decades
The levels of PCBs cited in the report following soil and oil tests are far above international safety levels, the Japanese paper reported. At the time the contamination was discovered, the level requiring clean-up for PCBs stood at 3 ppm; in the U.S., that level was 25 ppm. Today, Japanese restrictions are far lower -- 0.03 ppm, while the U.S. still allows the 25 ppm-level, but only for industrial sites where people only spend short amounts of time at, thus limiting their exposure.
In the industrial-age 1900s, PCBs were omnipresent in the factory setting. Also, they were commonly utilized as coolants in electrical transformers, but their manufacture was banned in 1979 after researchers determined that they were hazardous and had health risks. Currently, they are classified as persistent organic pollutants that can damage immune, nervous and reproductive systems. PCBs have also been linked to cancer.
Worse, they do not deteriorate in the environment and as such can contaminate soil and other natural structures for decades.
The Environmental Protection Agency says some of the highest levels of PCB contamination it has discovered at so-called "superfund" clean-up sites in the U.S. have peaked at 750 ppm, which are much lower than some areas at Kadena.
After officials at Kadena discovered the PCB contamination in 1987, Air Force First Lt. Bob McCarty, the deputy chief of public affairs for the 313th Air Division, was assigned to address the problem. His resulting seven-page document, which he gave to The Japan Times in February, detailed the level of contamination, as well as the potential political, health and financial ramifications associated with the discovery.
In terms of politics, McCarty's report stated that news of the contamination could damage the reputation of then-Gov. Junji Nishime, who supported the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, as he prepared for prefectural assembly elections in June of 1988.
"As a leader of conservative politics on Okinawa faced with a matter holding much potential for scandal, his constituents and fellow conservatives will force him, at least in appearance, to put pressure on USFJ [U.S. Forces Japan] commanders and demand answers to tough questions about the incident," the documents states.
Biggest fear was finding PCBs on other U.S. bases
Financially, McCarty estimated that clean-up costs would reach $190,000, or about $400,000 in today's terms.
But McCarty's most serious concern was that, if the Kadena contamination was made public, it would prompt calls for widespread PCB testing on other U.S. bases.
"Since the level of island-wide PCB contamination, if any, has not been determined, both USFJ and GOJ [government of Japan] officials will be pressured to test soil samples from high-risk sites . . . at all USFJ installations," says the report. "The potential for soil contamination at sites on other USFJ installations on Okinawa exists."
Seiryo Arakaki, the current chairman of Okinawa Prefectural Assembly's special committee on U.S. bases, told the Japanese paper that he had never heard of the contamination.
"When the U.S. military discovered the pollution, it should have released the information immediately and it should have clarified its clean-up efforts -- if any -- of the site," he said.