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Japan is Starting to Pollute Again

Friday, December 15, 2006 Posted: 06:36 PM JST

In the 1950s and 60's Japan was known as the world's worst polluter. During the 1970's however, it created a pollution miracle that earned it the world's admiration. Even environmentalists agreed that Japan had done an incredible job. A 1977 OECD report said that "Japanese trends in environmental quality ... are on the whole ... more favorable than in other countries."

By the 1980s Japan had reduced sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 85 percent. Other countries, on the other hand, made little progress. Up through 1989 the USA for example, experienced almost no decline at all.

"By 1990," explained Jeffrey Broadbent in his 1998 book Environmental Politics in Japan, "Japan possessed about 90 percent of the modern stack gas desulfurization equipment in use throughout the world."

But even during the 1960s and 70s, when environmental protest in Japan was at its fiercest, Japanese activists rarely saw the environment as the victim. The victim was always the people who suffered from Minamata Disease, Itai Itai Disease and other afflictions induced by pollution.

That lack of basic concern for the environment could be one of the reasons that Japanese companies appear to be returning to their polluting ways. Companies and the government are once again putting a higher value on economic growth than on the environment.

"Companies, with an eye on the bottom line," writes the Asahi Shimbun, "slacken their efforts to abide by environmental regulations." A typical example is the Kobe Steel Ltd. plant in Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture:

"For 162 hours between 2001 and 2005, the plant emitted nitrogen oxide and other harmful substances in excess of the statutory limits stipulated under the Air Pollution Control Law. It papered over the violations in forged reports to the city and Hyogo Prefecture. The forgery had been going on for 29 years.

The irregularity was only uncovered when the industry ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency conducted an on-site inspection on safety management in April following an industrial accident.

'(The cover-up) was pretty devious,' a Hyogo prefectural official said. 'They pasted on falsified record sheets.'

This was not an isolated incident. According to Asahi Shimbun, JFE Steel Corp.'s plant in Chiba discharged wastewater containing cyanide and alkaline compounds into Tokyo Bay on more than 1,000 occasions between 2001 and 2004. JFE Steel East Japan Works Chiba falsified raw measurement data and submitted the reports to the city of Chiba and Chiba Prefecture. Showa Denko KK's Chiba Business Unit in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, was found to have dumped illegal waste into Tokyo Bay on 58 occasions in 2004.

As in the 1950s, the Japanese government appears to side with big business. Showa Denko dumped illegal waste, rewrote reports and destroyed documentation. Yet after Chiba prefectural police referred Showa Denko to prosecutors on suspicion of violating the Water Pollution Control Law, former official was given a summary order to pay 200,000 yen (USD 1,700) in fines.

Authorities aren't given the resources to check environmental misconduct.

"Authorities simply don't have the resources to check on every factory every year," writes Asahi Shimbun, "Instead, they must trust the data provided by the companies.

'The task involves a vast number of man-hours, and we don't have the human resources,' said a Hyogo Prefecture official. 'We don't even have any investigative authority. So in reality, it is almost impossible for us to flush out violations.'

The article then continues: "The government switched from imposing draconian controls on pollution to taking a more conciliatory line. As budgets tightened, on-site inspections by local governments decreased. The trend was to depend on companies to regulate themselves."

In spite of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan's environmental future does not look hopeful concludes Asahi Shimbun. It especially sees problems in a weak legal system:

"The Basic Environmental Law defines seven environmental pollution issues, including air, water and noise, to be covered by specific laws. There is also a specific law that calls for corporations to designate a pollution prevention manager and requires them to implement preventive measures. The Air Pollution Control Law and the Water Pollution Control Law set specific caps on toxic substances emitted from factories and require companies to keep records of emissions.

Yet, the Air Pollution Control Law does not require companies to report data measurements to local and central governments, nor are they required to disclose information to the public. Local governments try to make up the difference by imposing tight pollution prevention agreements, but such pacts are non-binding.

USD 1 = JPY 117 (December 15, 2006)

Keywords: opinion_item

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