Atsugi Residents vs. Aircraft Noise

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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, JAPAN — The Japanese government must pay $70 million to residents living near Naval Air Facility Atsugi as compensation for noise created by aircraft at the base, a Yokohama District Court ruled Wednesday.

The court also barred Japan Self-Defense Forces aircraft from flying between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., in a ruling believed to be the first time such a ban has been imposed at the district court level, officials said.

The court threw out an argument made by lawyers for the case’s 7,054 plaintiffs to ban U.S. military night operations at Atsugi, court.

The United States is supposed to pay 75 percent of the costs associated with the verdict, according to the U.S.-Japan treaty obligations — but only if the U.S. agrees to pay, Japanese Ministry of Defense officials told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

In past noise lawsuits, the Japanese government has always paid the full amount, Japanese officials said. However, the $70 million verdict represents the largest known compensation figure for a noise lawsuit since World War II, and the plaintiffs called on the U.S. to contribute on Wednesday.

“We ask the U.S. government, therefore, to pay their responsibility this time, by taking seriously the fact that the Japanese court acknowledged the serious health hazards the noise has been inflicting on residents in the neighboring communities,” Tokio Kaneko, deputy leader of the plaintiff’s group, said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes.

U.S. Navy officials at Atsugi were unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.

A spokesman for the Japanese Defense Ministry’s South Kanto Defense Bureau said the government would review the court ruling and determine whether to appeal.

“It is regrettable that we could not obtain the understanding of the court,” the spokesman said.

It remained unclear how much the ruling would actually lessen airplane noise in the densely populated communities neighboring Atsugi. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces generally operate turboprop P-3 surveillance planes, along with some smaller aircraft out of Atsugi.

The U.S. Navy operates its noisier F-18 fighter jets there, though it tries to reserve late flights for essential operations. The Navy also flies at higher altitudes in the base vicinity to lessen noise.

Oral arguments in began in the lawsuit in 2008. At the time, plaintiffs had been asking for about $53 million, a ban on all flights from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., and no engine noise exceeding 70 decibels.

By comparison, a California Department of Transportation chart equates 70 decibels with normal speech from three feet away.

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