Tsunami Rubble Shipped Abroad for Profit? ( and other Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Ideas )

Scanning my facebook feed this morning, my eyes lit on the latest post from Helen Caldicott, decrying a recent proposal to move more debris from Northern Japan.  This time, the plan is to ship rubble from Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures across the ocean to the Mariana Islands for recycling and disposal. Led by a group of Japanese investors who promise mutual benefits and profit, the scheme (perhaps I should not have legitimized it

Pagan Island: future dumping ground for Japan’s unsavory debris?

with the term “plan” in the first place) involves sending debris-laden ships to an uninhabited volcanic island north of Saipan, unloading the rubble and beginning the recycling process while simultaneously setting up a mining industry for pozzolan ( I flipped back and forth between Wikpedia and the American Heritage Dictionary at this point, learning that pozzolan is a vitreous, sileceous material found in volcanic ash that reacts with calcium hydroxide to unlock gradually-strengthening cement-like properties), with the aim of sending those same ships back to Japan full of rocks (the pozzolan) that will be used in the making of cement…….Sound complicated?  Time-consuming?  Well, for starters, there’s no harbor, airstrip, electricity or running water on the island.  And what about permits, licenses, official safeguards and regulations?  Project head Isamu Tokuichi, chairman of the board of the Kansai Oil Company and president of the New Energy Corporation, isn’t concerned with these minor details at present. He promises a mutually beneficial long-term arrangement, with profit involved for the place in question, Pagan Island, and relief for trash-laden Tohoku.

Well, never mind logistical complications. It’s clearly an ethical and moral issue, although neither the Japanese investors nor Froilan Tenorio, former governor of the Northern Mariana Islands, are presenting it as such. While the current governor of Saipan is dubious, and private citizens of the Marinara Islands are protesting the use of Pagan Island as a waste dump,

Pagan Island, seen from the ground. (Photo by David Sischo)

Tenorio assured local news reporters that the Japanese emissaries are, “…interested only in Pagan and they want to buy pozzolan, which will be loaded onto ships that will be empty after bringing debris to the island. ”  Hmmm.  Project leader Tokuichi assures Marinara Island officials and residents that all debris coming from Tohoku will be non-radioactive and non-toxic: safe for handling and exposure, and posing no threat to the welfare of the island and its ecosystem.

It’s all in what one wants to believe, isn’t it?  After continued betrayals and lies portrayed as truth, it’s hard to fathom that so many folks in this country still swallow official pronouncements whole, without bothering to chew. What exactly is the government “safety standard”, and how is it measured?  How is it compared with the standard held by other countries or by the standard set for previous generations in Japan?  Is the particular danger being measured the only potential danger involved, or are there others that are less-publicized? And most importantly, is accepting the “promise” of harmlessness worth the weight of the implied risk?

As of now, the development of Pagan Island for waste recycling, landfill (20 percent of Japan’s debris will actually be left on the island and buried), and mining is only an idea. But greed moves swiftly, and I still cannot believe that within a year after the triple

Hosono Goshi, making his plea to “share the burden” at a temporary storage site for debris in Ishinomaki. (photo by Kyodo News)

disaster, Hosono Goshi’s plan to spread tsunami rubble across the country for burning has come to fruition. When first announced that every prefecture across Japan would be encouraged to “share the burden” of Tohoku, I assumed that it would be quickly rejected as an obviously half-baked idea. But as the “encouragement” was further defined as financial rewards for those prefectures agreeing to receive rubble, the clear waters were muddied, and the transport of debris officially began.  You will note that I refrain from referring to it as “radioactive debris”, since the government claims that the rubble has been tested as safe for burning–no nasty radioactivity will linger in the air or on the ground.

Whether that’s an accurate assessment or not (the blogger EX-SKF, to name just one source, is convinced that rubble in the surrounding prefectures of Fukushima is definitely contaminated with radioactivity), people that I speak with at anti-nuclear events in Tokyo all tell me the same thing: it’s not that simple. They are afraid of and concerned about much more than radioactive particles.  Building standards were different decades ago, and rubble from the older houses destroyed in Tohoku is contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, and other potentially harmful toxins.  A quick peek into a blog for firefighters (who must be highly motivated to stay well-informed on the potential health effects of burning buildings) reveals a detailed list of hazardous building materials, along with the declaration that, “Any building in today’s world contains materials that are hazardous to our health. They range from materials that can be toxic with short-term or low-level exposure to those that can be toxic or carcinogenic years after exposure to those that are only irritants.”  As a citizen of Saipan wrote in a  letter to a Micronesian paper , “By the way, the definition of waste is precisely that, WASTE!”  ….and that’s the long and short of it: there’s no conceivable positive spin.  Whatever the exact degree of toxicity and danger, no-one in his right mind could argue that a big pile of waste is better broken up and spread about than kept contained in one place. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening, with the boundaries now being further extended to include other countries.

“Hey, don’t mess with my territory!” (Photo, by David Sischo, of just one of the species found on Pagan Island)

How can the removal and transport of waste from Japan be presented as a business deal, with no consideration of ethical issues (or at least ethical issues related to Pagan Island?)  And who will speak up to protect the ecosystem of an island devoid of inhabitants?  Citizens of neighboring islands in the Marinara chain are already raising their voices, as are bloggers from across the ocean. And because the Mariana Islands are legally a Commonwealth (defined by American Heritage Dictionary as a “self-governing, autonomous political unit voluntarily associated with the United States”), they fall under the legislation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is already on the alert and monitoring the situation.  Some speculate that even if permission can be obtained on a federal level (which could take up to five years), potential lawsuits could cause even further setbacks.

It seems that Japanese legislation may also prevent the deal from going through; blogger EX-SKF reports that on Friday, May 11th, a Miyagi Prefecture official stated his “appreciation for the offer”,  adding that according to the law, shipping debris abroad would be “impossible” unless Japan has no other options within its own country.  Former  Governor Tenorio and the Japanese investors, apparently refusing to take no for an answer, are still moving ahead with plans; according to a March 16th article in the Saipan Times, Japan will be sending engineers and other technical experts to Pagan Island “as early as next week” to gather data and formulate a more detailed plan.

Let us hope that that the combined efforts of individuals and government regulations will be enough to nip a terrible idea in the bud.  Pagan Island may not be inhabited by humans (though it was, until 1981),  but it houses a fragile ecosystem including several endangered

Another Pagan Island critter, posing for his photo by David Sischo.

species which are already disappearing from the more popular tourist destinations of Guam and Saipan.  I’m excited to have discovered photographs of some of the wildlife on the island, taken by a biologist named David Sischo.  Do take a look–I guarantee you will catch your breath at least once, and possibly see snails in a new light from now on.  Airstrips, harbors, quarries, recycling and incineration facilities, as well as landfills, will threaten the habitat of the creatures you see in the photos.  Both the native peoples and the ecosystem of Pagan Island have already suffered at the hands of the Japanese government (read a bit about the island’s history here); at least the ecosystem remains, and deserves a chance to flourish.

I hope that the story of Pagan Island is picked up by  some of the mainstream Japanese media such as NHK or Asahi Daily News.  Japanese citizens need to stay informed, and to consider the veracity and the implications of what’s being reported (rather than swallowing those reports whole. It is actually a well-known and well-reported fact that people in this country die from swallowing their food without chewing properly, namely a solidified jelly called “Konnyaku” in the summer and sticky rice cakes called “Mochi” in the winter).  It is not the reporter’s or the announcer’s job to present stories in a moral light; their job is to present the stories, period, as accurately and impartially as possible.  On the receiving end, the listener or the reader should be engaged, rather than passive, and looking for meaning in every story–including and especially the moral implications– rather than accepting what is presented at face value.  In the case of Pagan Island,  a potentially profitable plan to ease the burden in Tohoku clearly means the exploitation of a less-wealthy country and the encroachment upon a fragile ecosystem that cannot possible emerge from the project unscathed.

Not just ingesting the news critically, but considering the implications of our own actions

Socks drying outside on a cute-as-well-as-practical Japanese clothes hanger.

and choices is also part of living responsibly in a country facing a potential energy crisis. I say “potential”, because I firmly believe that if individuals and corporations make responsible and creative choices this summer, there will be no crisis at all. Some hardship, yes, but that does not equal a crisis.  As individuals, we do not need (for instance) clothes dryers.  My own has been broken for….four years now.  At first, I was desperate to either fix or replace it, but after the first year, I realized that my world had not fallen apart and that, despite holding down a full-time job and coping with weeks of rain in both early summer and fall, hanging my family’s laundry either outside or in the house was quite doable. Great energy savings, and very little hardship involved.

In the first months after the triple disaster, Japanese citizens learned to look with new eyes, realizing that glaring lights in the daytime, multiple escalators in train stations, and air conditioning set to “cool” in convenience stores did not have to be the norm. Riding the trains in both heat and darkness was both uncomfortable and creepy, but we all lived through it.  Train stations and parking lots were dark as well, and there was no rise in crime.  A little over a year has gone by, and already folks have forgotten

Drink machines–six in a row! Like only five wouldn’t be enough??

how to look at the world.  The lights are back on, the escalators are running, and we’re surrounded by drink machines. What’s that all about? As far as I’m concerned, there’s no excuse for having them at all. They guzzle electricity, and exist to cater to our laziness and desire for immediate gratification.  We trip over convenience stores on every block, and do not need to run out to the roadside to get an energy drink at eleven at night. With Jr. High students addicted to smoking and businessmen addicted to drinking, there certainly do not need to be cigarette or alcohol vending machines, either. Worse yet, my friend in Tokyo tells me that her Jr. High age daughter walks by a condom vending machine every morning on the way to school, and is “terribly curious”.  I used to look on these ubiquitous and cheery (some machines talk to you!) staples of modern Japanese culture with amusement, but no longer.  I look at them and see waste. Want to know some vending machine statistics?  Check out this blog post.  And Pachinko parlors? Don’t get me started there!  And I feel even Grinchier about illumination at Christmas!  In short, I felt good about simplifying my life and being less reliant on electricity last year, and it breaks my heart that life got “back to normal” so relatively soon.  The standard of “normal” itself needs to undergo a radical change if Japan is to not just weather the summer without nuclear power, but continue to re-invent itself and thrive.

Japan’s Fukushima has become a nightmare of a place, where the sea bed is being covered in concrete (to prevent further leakage of radioactive materials which have sunk to the bottom), the ground is a repository for bags and bags of radioactive soil and leaves, the forest is officially off-limits (contaminated with cesium), and yet those who speak out against nuclear power are considered strange or extreme. It is my hope that slowly but surely, the tables will turn, and those who were formerly considered odd birds and extremists will become Japan’s new heros. In certain circles, some already have, and perhaps their stories will be the focus of my next post. Thank you for your continued readership, and good night.

Oe Kenzaburou: undisputed literary genius, but is he also an odd bird? Hey, he’s my hero! Hang tough, Oe-san!


9 thoughts on “Tsunami Rubble Shipped Abroad for Profit? ( and other Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Ideas )

  1. I used to wonder how businessmen could be so evil as to always be planning such horrible schemes because it didn’t fit with my real world understanding of people. It took me a long time to realize that the reward factor in business is huge compared to other forms of work such as being a doctor, teacher or soldier.

    These people definitely have a positive feeling when it comes to doing what they do and their enthusiasm is hard to extinguish. Especially since they never get their hands dirty, what do they have to worry about?

  2. Hello, Jonathan. I really have nothing against businessmen in general–plenty of ethical ones as well as unscrupulous rascals–but the “reward factor” is a completely relative thing. I assume that you mean money, which would not in itself be a reward for me. More money means more complications in life (although too little means complications, as well), and brings no joy in and of itself. Doctors and teachers both live with chronic exhaustion, but their salaries are wildly different. I would say that both are probably emotionally rewarding. Serving in the armed forces is a different kettle of fish altogether, and I cannot say a whole lot about it.

    Those involved in the Pagan Island scheme are certainly enthusiastic. It’s good to read the comments of former residents of the island (many have written short notes on a “Save the Island” blog site) to get a more rational and moral perspective on the issue.

  3. whoa, whoa, and whoa!! Ak! I don’t have time to read this all right now, but thank you for posting it! As a new resident on Saipan, I am DEFINITELY interested in this topic. I know having rubble there in Japan must be a burden, but… really?! The plan is to dump it near here?! No, please! We have enough health issues!! We need clean, safe water and air! There must be another alternative. I’ll have to read this more slowly later and better digest it all, and look in to it…

    • I’m glad you found this post, Kate. If I were a Saipan resident, I’d be up in arms. The problem is that all countries, and all people, need clean, safe water and air. The tsunami and quake combined left years worth of rubble in just an hour…. Well, maybe it took three days, since raging fires afterwards added to the mess. Japan is densely populated, and there’s really no good place to “safely” burn everything. Reconstruction depends on getting rid of those mountains (literally, mountains) of trash, so the central government is frantic to deal with it. Be that as it may, that trash is Japan’s burden to deal with, and has no business going abroad, especially to an island that’s home to animals in danger of extinction. All those involved with the scheme leave the ecosystem completely out of the picture, as if it’s not as issue. Greed involved on both sides, and only a short-term vision. Japan’s ecosystem is already out of whack (putting it kindly…I could say polluted or poisoned)–at least individuals, corporations, and government agencies need to have the decency to contain the pollution within the country.

      • Perhaps this is just another reason why businesses and various fuel sources need to find better, safer ways to produce. I hate for Japan to have to deal with the burden of the toxins, too – no one should have to live with those dangers. But if the companies were not creating dangerous materials in the first place, then it wouldn’t be an issues now. But, going forward from here – what do you do to safely dispose of that sort of thing? And how do you make it financially beneficial to companies to NOT repeat these choices in the future?

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