THE BIG READ: Japan still struggling
Two years after the triple calamities of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ravaged Japan's northeastern Pacific coast, debris containing asbestos, lead, other dangerous chemicals - and perhaps most worrying - radioactive waste from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant looms as a threat for the region.
So far, disposal of debris from the disasters is turning out to have been anything but clean. Workers often lacking property oversight, training or proper equipment, have dumped contaminated waste with scant regard for regulations or safety, as organised crime has infiltrated the clean-up process.
Researchers are only beginning to analyse environmental samples for potential health implications from the various toxins swirled in the dish of the disaster zone - including dioxins, benzene, cadmium and organic waste-related, says Shoji Nakayama of the government-affiliated National Institute for Environmental Studies.
Apart from some inflammatory reactions to some substances in the dust and debris, the longer-term health risks remain unclear, he says. The mountains of rubble and piles of smashed vehicles scattered along the coast only hint at the scale of the debris removed so far from coastlines and river valleys stripped bare by the tsunami.
To clear, sort and process the rubble - and a vastly larger amount of radiation-contaminated soil and other debris near the nuclear plant in Fukushima, the government is relying on big construction companies whose multilayer subcontracting systems are infiltrated by criminal gangs, or yakuza.
In January, police arrested a senior member of Japan's second-largest yakuza group, Sumiyoshi Kai, on suspicion of illegally dispatching three contract workers to Date, a city in Fukushima struggling with relatively high radioactive contamination, through another firm and pocketing a third of their pay.
He told interrogators he came up with the plot to "make money out of clean-up projects" because the daily pay for such government projects, at $160-$180, was far higher than for other construction jobs, said police spokesman Hiraku Hasumi.
Gangsters have long been involved in industrial waste handling, and police suspect they are systematically targeting reconstruction projects.
Meanwhile, workers complain of docked pay, unpaid hazard allowances - which should be $110 a day - and of inadequate safety equipment and training for handling the hazardous waste they are clearing from towns, shores and forests after meltdowns of three nuclear plant reactor cores at Fukushima Daiichi released radiation into the surrounding air, soil and ocean.
"We are only part of a widespread problem," says a 56-year-old clean-up worker who asked to be identified only as Nakamura, out of fear of retaliation.
"Everyone, from bureaucrats to construction giants to tattooed gangsters, is trying to prey on decontamination projects. And the government is looking the other way."
During a recent visit to Naraha, a deserted town of 8000 now a weedy no-man's land within the 20km restricted zone around the crippled nuclear plant, workers in regular work clothes and surgical masks were scraping away topsoil, pruning trees and washing roofs.
"They told me only how to cut grass, but nothing about radiation," says Munenori Kagaya, 59, who worked in the nearby town of Tomioka, which is off-limits due to high radiation.
Naraha's mayor, Yukiei Matsumoto, says that early on, he and other local officials were worried over improper handling of the $16-billion clean up, but refrained from raising the issue until public allegations of dozens of instances of mishandling of radioactive waste prompted an investigation by the environment ministry, which is handling decontamination of the 11 worst-affected towns and villages.
"I want them to remind them again what the clean up is for," Matsumoto says. "Its purpose is to improve the environment so people can safely return to live here. It's not just to meet a deadline."
The ministry says it found only five questionable cases, though it acknowledged a need for better oversight. About half of the 242 contractors involved have been reprimanded for violations.
An official in charge of decontamination says the government has little choice but to rely on big contractors and give them enough leeway to get the work done.
"We have to admit that only the major construction companies have the technology and manpower to do such large-scale government projects. If clean up projects are overseen too strictly, it will most likely cause further delays and labour shortages," the official says.
Minoru Hara, deputy manager at a temporary waste storage site in Naraha, defends the 3000 workers doing the work.
"Most of the clean-up workers are working sincerely and hard," he says. "They are doing a good job of washing down houses and cleaning up gardens. Such criticism is unfair and bad for morale." - Sapa-AP