Court upholds DOD finding that Okinawa air base won’t harm endangered dugong


A federal appeals court in San Francisco on May 6 upheld a U.S. Department of Defense finding that construction of a Marine Corps airbase on the Japanese island of Okinawa would not harm the dugong, an endangered sea mammal revered by the Okinawan people.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco in 2003 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Turtle Island Restoration Network and two Japanese groups.

A three-judge panel said the Defense Department fulfilled the requirements of a federal historic preservation law when it consulted scientific reports and surveys. The department concluded there was an extremely low probability of the sea mammals being found in the area of the new base and that the construction was not likely to harm them.

Center for Biological Diversity program director Pete Galvin said, “We’re very disappointed. It’s a sad day for the dugong.”

He said the plaintiff groups are considering a further appeal to an expanded 9th Circuit panel or the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dugong, a relative of the manatee that can grow as large as 1,000 pounds, is classified as an endangered species under U.S. law and as a protected natural monument under the Japanese Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.

It is found in the coastal waters of the western Pacific and Indian oceans. Galvin said there may be only two to 24 remaining Okinawa dugongs, which are possibly a subspecies of dugongs.

The U.S. National Historic Preservation Act came into play in the lawsuit because the law requires federal agencies to “take account” of the impact of planned projects on properties protected by similar foreign laws.

The environmental groups that sued to block the base contended the Defense Department’s study was inadequate and also that the process should have included public participation.

But the appeals court said the historic preservation law did not include a requirement for public participation in such studies. The panel upheld a 2018 decision by U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, who said the Defense Department’s study was reasonable and adequate.

Galvin said that construction work has begun on filling in underwater land for runways for the new base. He said the underwater seagrass in the area is one of the best remaining habitats for the Okinawa dugong.

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