Japan wakes up to its dioxin-scarred landscape

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The Independent Online

Whatever the invisible harm that may, or may not, be happening to the people of Hinode town they cannot complain that the giant rubbish dump close to their village is an eyesore. It is about as out of the way as could be, tucked away in a valley, sealed off from outside scrutiny by closed roads, high fences and thick forest.

Whatever the invisible harm that may, or may not, be happening to the people of Hinode town they cannot complain that the giant rubbish dump close to their village is an eyesore. It is about as out of the way as could be, tucked away in a valley, sealed off from outside scrutiny by closed roads, high fences and thick forest.

To catch a glimpse of what is going on, you climb a steep path for 20 minutes through bamboo stands and trees beginning to blaze into their autumn colours. Then the rumbling of vehicles is heard, a mesh fence becomes visible through the trees, and below is the source of Hinode's anxiety.

A vast hole, several square miles of it, has been scooped out of the floor of a once-peaceful valley that now resembles a giant's sandpit. The first rubbish dump built near Hinode, the one called Yatozawa, had a capacity for 2.6 million cubic metres, making it the biggest waste landfill in Asia. It is full, and this new one can hold a further 2.5 million cubic metres.

Blue trucks, Tonka toys from this height, trundle in and out, bearing ash from Tokyo's rubbish incinerators. Their backs tip and the ash slides out in a cloud of grey dust, which billows, rises and lifts daintily on the breezes that dance through the valley. Up and up the clouds rise, above the dump, above the trees, and beyond. This is Hinode's great worry. Until recently, much of this fine dust was plastic and PVC - the uncountable millions of plastic cartons, bottles, bags and wrapping materials - that Tokyo generates every day.

Burnt, as most Japanese rubbish is, it releases chemicals including dioxins, which are believed to cause cancer and disruption of the human hormone system. Dioxin is thickly present in the ash of plastic, the same ash drifting slowly over the surrounding countryside.

In one of the villages downwind of the first landfill, 18 people from a population of 271 have died of cancer in less than 10 years, four times the national average. When the government announced a second landfill site in 1991, local people objected, but to no avail.

So the activists banded together to buy the land on which the dump was to be expanded, and occupied it until last month, when the bulldozers and men in hard hats arrived and they were ejected.

"The authorities pretend they are our servants, that sovereignty lies with the people," says Shinichi Hashimoto, of the local citizens' group. "But the truth is they are oblivious to our wishes. They can do what they like, and get away with it."

Dioxins are an international problem, but nowhere is it more serious than in Japan, and Hinode-style conflicts are all over the country.

In a town near Osaka, former workers at a rubbish incinerator are suing their erstwhile employer after they were diagnosed with various cancers believed to have been caused by dioxin. At the town of Atsugi, the American military has taken action against the operator of an incinerator that has been spewing dioxin-laden smoke over apartments housing US sailors and their families.

And, as The Independent disclosed on Wednesday, dangerous levels of dioxin and similar chemicals known as PCBs have been found next to the giant sports stadium in Yokohama, where the World Cup football final will be held in 2002.

Two-fifths of the world's emissions of dioxin come from Japan, and the reasons are complicated and interwoven. Historically, the Japanese government has a history of subordinating the health of individuals to the interests of big business. After residents of the town of Minamata started to become sick in the 1960s from eating fish contaminated with industrial mercury, it was years before the polluter, a company called Chisso Corporation, was brought to justice.

But the oil shock of the mid-1970s and appalling air pollution led to relatively strict controls on air pollution. Unfortunately, this environmental virtue does not extend to the treatment of Japan's rubbish.

Of this, there is an incredible volume - 1.2 million tons - of rubbish (including industrial waste) is generated every day and the country has 1,800 incinerators for household waste alone (compared with 250 in America).

Partly, as anyone who has visited a Japanese department store will know, this is caused by the national enthusiasm for wasteful, elaborate wrapping. But it is also due to a powerful and profitable incinerator manufacturing industry, which charges three times as much for its furnaces within Japan as for overseas markets.

The government of the Tokyo metropolitan area, on whose edges Hinode sits, insists the site is safe, but its pollution surveys have been cursory. When Mr Hashimoto's group demanded to see result of tests on the water supply, the government refused, even after a court ordered it to comply. It chose to pay a fine of £800 a day until suddenly announcing the data did not exist.

"So that's it," says Mr Hashimoto. "There is nothing we can do to argue with them."

The trucks will keep coming, the dust will keep billowing, and perhaps only Hinode's grandchildren will know whether their forebears were right to be so alarmed.

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