Japan’s Other Environmental Woes

The Wall Street Journal breaks from the pack with article on non-nuclear fallout

The Wall Street Journal distinguished itself on Monday with an article that examined some of the non-nuclear environmental impacts of last month’s natural disasters in Japan.

Almost a full month after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the island nation on March 11, the international media’s attention remains focused on the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and not without good reason. The New York Times also had a distinguishing moment on Monday, with a front-page article revealing the details of a confidential assessment from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission which contained a bleaker prognosis of the plant’s troubles than Japanese authorities have provided. So there has been solid sleuthing all around.

But it was nice to see the Journal’s Eric Bellman look farther afield. Reporting from Yamamoto Town, Japan, Bellman found another looming environmental crisis that demands urgent attention. The first three ‘graphs of his piece are worth quoting in their entirety:

As much of Japan worries about nuclear radiation, residents along its northeastern coast are confronting a different environmental disaster: the wide-scale destruction and contamination of farms and other land from salt water, chemicals and other detritus and toxins washed in with last month’s tsunami.

The March 11 earthquake and waves not only left more than 25,000 people dead or missing, and hundreds of thousands more homeless, but also spread debris and chemicals across hundreds of miles of the country’s best farmland, fishing areas and tourist zones. Government officials say they have only just started to survey the environmental damage, but early indications are that some ecosystems and the industries that depend on them could take years to rebound.

More than 40% of the farmland of the costal city of Sendai, for instance, has been soaked with salt water, sludge, cars and garbage. The city is still trying to figure out whether the toxic cocktail has ruined the soil of its rice paddies and wheat fields and if they can be cleansed.

Stories like this, about non-radioactive pollution, have been rare. Well, not rare, exactly. Doing its self-absorbed best, the United States press corps has been plenty concerned about debris from the tsunami washing up on its own shores. Wire stories from the Associated Press and UPI have been making the rounds, reporting on different teams of oceanographers all concluding that some of detritus will reach Hawaii and the West Coast in one to three years. Hundreds of outlets have run them. Yet there’s been hardly a word about the refuse already choking Japan’s fields and tainting its water. According to Bellman’s article:

One expert, Kyoto University associate professor Nagahisa Hirayama, estimated there could be more than 14 million tons of waste left over in Miyagi prefecture. The prefecture has the capacity to dispose of only about 800,000 tons a year, according to data released by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment in 2008, the refuse that is already chokes Japan’s

In addition to the article in the Journal, there have been a couple other snapshots of non-nuclear pollution in Japan. The Associated Press had a piece on March 25, which described the rice paddies on the outskirts of Sendai as “ankle-deep in a black, salty sludge. Crumpled cars and uprooted trees lie scattered across them.” The article was largely optimistic, though, reporting that “agriculture experts — as well as Indonesian farmers hit by a tsunami in 2004 — say a quick recovery is possible, maybe within a year. A key factor will be how long it takes for the salt to wash out from the fields, some still flooded with seawater.”

Most of the coverage has revolved around more generic portraits of the clean-up effort, such as a typically egocentric article from Voice of America, which focused on the “key role” that the U.S. military is playing in removing mud and debris from the northern town of Ishinomaki. It’s not that such pieces aren’t worthwhile, but reporters should be asking more probing questions about what’s in the waste.

Three days after the earthquake, in the first of two posts for The Pump Handle, a well-regarded public health blog, award-winning investigative science journalist Elizabeth Grossman highlighted the specter of fallout beyond alpha particles and gamma rays:

With the horrifying wreckage of devastated homes, buildings, vehicles, boats, crops, airports, and factories, come ruptured fuel and sewer lines. The Japanese news service NHK is reporting more than 46,000 buildings damaged. In the black smoke and ash billowing from burning homes will be hazardous chemical residue from plastics, heavy metals, insulation, and upholstery foams. This adds to the potential health hazards of the biological debris.

Grossman went on to cite articles in the trade publications Chemical Week and ICIS.com that covered fires and other disruptions at some the many petrochemical plants along Japan’s coastline. In her second post, she followed-up with more links, reporting that:

Precise details are now just emerging, but a March 14 story in EE Times, a publication that covers the electronics engineering industry, also reports damage to automotive plants as well as power outages and aftershocks that are affecting operations further from the disaster’s epicenter. Among the plants affected is a Texas Instruments fabricator in Miho that suffered major damage to its “infrastructure systems for delivering chemicals, gases, water and air.” A Canon plant in Utsunomiya that makes specialized lenses “suffered extensive damage,” reports The New York Times.

Although oil refineries and chemical plants may be the obvious sources of potentially hazardous chemical releases, it’s important to remember that silicon wafer and semiconductor production involves use of numerous hazardous chemicals, including flammable and corrosive gases. Even under normal operating conditions, use and storage of these materials poses risks that must be addressed.

Indeed. One has only to recall the September 11 attacks as reminder that a lot of nasty, dangerous stuff starts floating around when buildings and other infrastructure are destroyed—and it doesn’t have to be radioactive to be troublesome. Reporters should remember that as they continue to cover the clean-up efforts in Japan.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,