Legal Battle Begins in Appeal Challenging U.S. Base's Threat to Rare Okinawa Dugongs

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SAN FRANCISCO— American conservation groups and residents of Okinawa have filed the opening brief in an appeal of a court ruling allowing construction of a U.S. Marine Corps air base in the Japanese island’s coastal waters.

The brief, filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, highlights the base’s threat to the Okinawa dugong, a critically endangered marine mammal related to manatees.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including Queen guitarist Brian May, have signed a petition against the project on the White House’s “We the People” website. Building the base will involve filling in and paving over hundreds of acres of rich coral and seagrass habitat crucial to the last surviving Okinawa dugongs. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Japanese co-plaintiffs are represented in the case by Earthjustice, which filed the appeal. The 9th Circuit ruled in 2017 that Okinawa residents deserved a full hearing on their concerns.

This base will be an extinction-level event for the Okinawa dugong, but the U.S. military has ruthlessly disregarded the threat to these gentle creatures,” said Peter Galvin, cofounder of the Center. “The law clearly requires the Trump administration to fully consider how much damage this project will do to the dugong and Okinawa’s indigenous culture.”

Dugongs have long been revered by native Okinawans. The brief argues that a lower court’s ruling last year overlooked key procedural and public-participation requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The brief notes that the U.S. Department of Defense avoided consulting with any community members or cultural practitioners regarding the airbase’s threats to the dugong. Military officials also disregarded evidence that the base will hurt dugongs.

The dugong is listed as an object of national cultural significance under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. Under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act and international law, the United States must avoid or mitigate harm to places or things of cultural significance to another country. 

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