First lawsuit on noise pollution caused by Iwakuni base

by Yasuyoshi Hirota, Staff Writer

Court injunction against relocation of carrier-based aircraft also sought

On March 23, 2009, a lawsuit was filed against the Japanese government at the Yamaguchi District Court’s Iwakuni branch by 476 residents in the vicinity of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The plaintiffs are calling for a ban on early-morning and nighttime flights by U.S. military aircraft as well as the cancellation of a planned relocation of carrier-based aircraft, which will follow the realignment of the U.S. forces. They also seek a total of around 550 million yen in compensation for noise damage. This is the first lawsuit seeking a court ruling on the propriety of the U.S. forces realignment.

The plaintiffs are from 212 households, from infants to the age of 93. All live in the area where the noise registers 75 or higher on the Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level, WECPNL, or W level, also called the noisiness index. This is also the first lawsuit on noise pollution involving the Iwakuni base.

Their complaint demands 1) a ban on flights and operation of aircraft engines from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. and reduction of the noise to 60 decibels or lower during other hours, 2) a halt of training exercises by aircraft such as circling above and rising rapidly into the air over the urban area, 3) 1,150,000 yen per plaintiff in compensation for past noise damage, and 4) 23,000 yen per plaintiff as a monthly compensation payment, which will cover the damage during the trial and in the future. Regarding the relocation of the carrier-based aircraft, the plaintiffs expressed their demands in the complaint, using such language as “takeoffs and landings of 59 carrier-based aircraft and 12 air refueling tankers should be banned.”

The plaintiffs argue that the government-led shift of the runway at the Iwakuni base to a site offshore will violate the original purpose to reduce noise and pave the way for the carrier-based aircraft, which are scheduled to be relocated from the Atsugi Naval Air Station in Kanagawa Prefecture by 2014, and that the damage caused by the base will undoubtedly increase. They also said that the noise pollution had, for many years, interrupted their conversations and sleep, and caused physical damage such as tinnitus symptoms.

A series of lawsuits over noise pollution were filed at five courts in Japan in the past, involving cases related to the Atsugi base and the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture. These courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation for the past noise, which registered 75 or higher WECPNL. But these courts turned down the plaintiffs’ calls for a ban on flights.

The government has explained that even if the carrier-based aircraft are relocated to the Iwakuni base, the area troubled by noise with 75 or higher WECPNL will be reduced from the current 1600 hectares or so to about 500 hectares due to the move of the runway. The explanation generated resentment from the residents in the vicinity of the Iwakuni base, and they proceeded with their preparations for the lawsuit, forming a preparatory committee in November 2008 and the group of plaintiffs on March 7, 2009.

An official of the Ministry of Defense said that the Ministry was aware of the newspaper reports, but would not comment, because it had not received the complaint.

The U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni
The U.S. Air Force in Japan took command of the station in 1952, which was later designated as the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in 1962. The station has a total area of about 574 hectares with a 2,440-meter runway. The U.S. forces deploy about 50 aircraft including F/A18 Hornet fighters and CH-53D Sea Stallions, or heavy-lift cargo helicopters, while the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, which also uses the station, deploys about 40 aircraft. Concerning the number of annual takeoffs and landings, these aircraft took off from and landed at the station 49,000 times in 2006. The government is relocating the runway 1,000 meters offshore by reclaiming about 213 hectares of the eastern part of the station. The project will be completed by the end of fiscal 2010. The station will have a total area of about 787 hectares, 1.4 times as large as the present station.

Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level, WECPNL (noisiness index, W level)
WECPNL is an international standard to assess the effect of aircraft noise on people’s lives. An average figure is calculated based on the number of flights and when the flights take place. Sixteen daytime flights with noise of 90 decibels, equivalent to the noise inside a subway car, amount to 75 WECPNL. The number of flights at night, when people are sensitive to noise, is multiplied by 3 to 10. The government designates an area with noise of 75 or higher WECPNL as a “type 1 area” for providing subsidies for noise insulation work. The type 1 area in the vicinity of the Iwakuni base covers about 1,640 hectares, including Atatajima island in Otake City, Hiroshima Prefecture.

(Originally published on March 24, 2009)

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