Second in a series Staff writer
TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — Eiko Kotani’s backyard is known the nation over for its garbage. A resident of Tokorozawa’s Kunugiyama district for nearly two decades, she has spent the last nine years watching the forest behind her home become a haven for waste incinerators.
Today, the area goes by the colorful moniker “industrial waste Ginza.”
It was in November 1991 when rancid smoke first assaulted Kotani and sent her into the forest behind her house to find its source. She was shocked to find a smoldering pile of garbage in an open space concealed by trees a few hundred meters from her home. This was one of the first incinerators in Kunugiyama.
The area, a scraggly belt of forest at the junction of four municipalities — Miyoshi, Sayama, Kawagoe and Tokorozawa — is simply called Kunugiyama by locals and has gained dubious distinction as one of, if not the most, concentrated waste incinerator sites in Japan.
Despite its appearance, Kunugiyama is not a natural forest. This once naked plain was planted by locals at the request of the resident feudal lord over 300 years ago to prevent topsoil erosion. Historically, this wall of trees has supplied a wind block as well as a local source of fuel and fertilizer. The forest helped create and sustain a fertile environment that in turn helps sustain one of the nation’s top tea-producing areas.
"Before 1991, there were only one or two waste incinerators in the area," said Susumu Yokoyama, a farmer who produces mostly organic produce and uses leaves from the forest as fertilizer.
But that changed at the beginning of this decade. Incinerators began to pop up in and around the woods in the area, then soon became pervasive, he said.
Until recently, nearly 60 of the prefecture’s 277 incinerators operated in the area of the four municipalities. The smokestacks of roughly 16 of these pierce the forest canopy within a 500-meter radius of Kunugiyama.
As the number of incinerators billowing black clouds increased, so did the residents’ unease. This was heightened when results from an independent study released in December 1995 found high dioxin levels in the soil and ash in Kunugiyama and the surrounding area, including Koku Koen — a popular park in central Tokorozawa.
Concern deepened when half of the 30 air samples taken by the municipalities in the area found dioxin concentrations exceeding the national standard of 0.8 picograms per cubic meter. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram. Six of the sites where the samples were taken were schools.
Further investigation and calculation by citizens using government statistics have found infant mortality rates higher than the prefectural average in municipalities with higher concentrations of incinerators.
But why this concentration of incinerators around Tokorozawa?
Both citizens and government officials agree that more than one factor is involved.
The largest factor at play is probably the area’s proximity to Tokyo.
Less than the ideal neighbor, the metropolis exports its waste to surrounding areas to be processed before it is shuttled to the oceans or the mountains for final disposal. Citizens estimate that more than 80 percent of the garbage sent to Saitama Prefecture for processing originates in Tokyo.
And just one exit from Tokyo on the Kanetsu Expressway, the Tokorozawa interchange sits on an ideal location for waste disposal companies. Kunugiyama has the misfortune to lie a mere 15 minutes by car from this highway exit.
"We think the reason incinerators sprang up around Kunugiyama from around 1992 is because that is the period when Chiba Prefecture began to cut the amount of industrial waste it allows in from other prefectures by introducing a prior consultation system," said Toshihiko Maeda, the leader of a local citizens’ group.
It also makes economic sense for waste disposal companies, because Saitama Prefecture is on the way to final disposal sites, according to Maeda.
"Tokorozawa and Kunugiyama are only 20 or 30 km from Tokyo, and from here companies can easily take the garbage to Nagano, Gunma, Fukushima and Aomori prefectures or the Hokuriku region. It is very convenient geographically for (waste disposal) companies, and it allows them to make more money since most of them get paid per trip."
In addition to its “prime” location, the Kunugiyama area straddles four municipalities and does not fall under the jurisdiction of any one administrative entity. This makes it difficult for citizens to air their complaints and concerns toward any one municipality or individual.
To field the citizens’ criticism and concerns, like those of Maeda, the prefectural government set up a unit to handle dioxin policy in April 1998.
"Until 1997, the dioxin issue was addressed mainly from the position of waste and garbage incineration," said Ikuo Sakurai, a member of the prefecture’s dioxin policy team.
"From 1997, the problem really became more evident, and we realized that we needed to conduct surveys of the soil, air and (dioxin) levels in blood and human ingestion."
In addition, Saitama Prefecture, one of the prefectures without a prior consultation system to limit the shipping of garbage from other areas, plans to introduce one this fall, he added.
After a February news report warning of high levels of dioxin contamination in local produce that temporarily made spinach produced by farmers such as Yokoyama almost worthless, the prefecture urged incinerator operators to voluntarily shut down on Sundays and holidays.
But this has not visibly reduced the amount of waste being burned, which reached almost 500 tons per day in 1998, according to prefectural statistics obtained by locals.
While the air may clear on Sundays, this has only forced incinerators to change their hours of operation, citizens say, citing an increase in the number of facilities that run at night.
The recent setting and gradual tightening of incinerator dioxin emissions limits are part of government efforts to reduce the amount of dioxin released nationwide by almost 90 percent of 1997 levels by 2002.
In December 1997, the Health and Welfare Ministry revised the Waste Disposal Law, reducing dioxin emission limits for the first time ever. These revisions took effect on Dec. 1, 1998.
Under the revised law, incinerators in operation Dec. 1 are allowed to release up to 80 nanograms of dioxin per cubic meter of emissions until December 2002, at which point, depending on their size, they must meet standards of 10 nanograms or less. A nanogram is a billionth of a gram.
Newer facilities are faced with even stricter standards, of between 0.1 and 5 nanograms, depending on their capacity.
But critics contend that this law is merely an indirect endorsement of the status quo, and that the interim effluent value of 80 nanograms is much too high — 800 times that allowed by Germany or the Netherlands.
"There is not a single facility in Kunugiyama that has been stopped because it is releasing more than 80 nanograms. They have all cleared this level," Maeda said.
"This (80-nanogram) standard is not at all useful in reducing the number of incinerators here."
Of the 59 incinerators currently operating in the Tokorozawa vicinity, 24 have either been scrapped or are retooling to meet new government regulations, according to the prefecture. The remaining 35 all clear the interim standard, Sakurai said.
But even if they all meet the standard, it is the sheer number of facilities that is the problem, say locals, who called on the Health Ministry late last month to adopt policies limiting dioxin emissions in any one area.
However, Kotani maintains that the plants that have closed or are retooling are small and that garbage is simply being transferred to other sites for incineration.
And a former worker at a local waste processing plant agrees.
"If we don’t take the garbage, what will happen? It will rot on the streets and people will get angry. Someone has to burn it," said Fardine Ohara, who worked at a Kunugiyama incinerator up until mid-April.
When it comes to dioxin, few things are certain in Kunugiyama and Tokorozawa. Interest is high and change is on the menu, but not fast enough to satisfy local residents. For now, the garbage trucks continue to roll in from Tokyo with their unpopular cargo.