A Universal Studios Theme Park in Japan Sits on Top of a Toxic Waste Site
There were the usual men in suits, and there were also actors dressed as Woody Woodpecker, Marilyn Monroe, Herman Munster and Groucho Marx. The place was Osaka, Japan, two years ago, and the occasion was the signing of an agreement between Universal Studios Inc., a huge entertainment conglomerate (formerly MCA), and the Osaka city government to build a whiz-bang Universal Studios theme park on an old 140-acre industrial site in the city.
The park, to be completed by 2001, is a no-brainer: The Japanese clearly love theme parks. Tokyo Disneyland is a huge hit, attracting 17 million visitors in 1996 alone. A massive extension of the park, the $2.6 billion DisneySea, is to be built on a landfill in Tokyo Bay. The Universal Studios park is to feature attractions based on such Universal movies as E.T. and Jurassic Park, both number one box office hits in Japan. The films’ director, Steven Spielberg, is to serve as a creative consultant.
In Japan, the line between public and private enterprise is not finely drawn. Osaka’s city government, through its joint venture, is the single largest investor in the project, with an approximately 25 percent share of the $1.6 billion project. The other major Japanese investor is Sumitomo Corporation, whose Sumitomo Metal Industries owned a 17-acre corner of the industrial site.
But Sumitomo Metals isn’t The Nature Conservancy, and it wasn’t a benign steward of the land when it was in possession. Instead, it buried 700,000 tons of contaminated mud, laced with PCBs, heavy metals and other carcinogens on the site over a 25-year-period ending in 1989. Nao Watano, the former director of a waste disposal company subcontracted by Sumitomo, told The Japan Times, “We dumped the solid metal waste out in the open, piled it up and then just covered it with dirt as ordered by Sumitomo. We did not encase it or anything to protect it from the elements.”
In 1986, Osaka’s environmental protection agency discovered that the site had been used for dumping toxic waste and ordered a perfunctory cleanup, but according to the weekly magazine Kansai Jitsuwa, the city was not aware of the full extent of the problem and no major remediation occurred.
The latest round of environmental testing, last summer, was conducted by…Sumitomo itself, working with its partner in the project, Osaka’s city government. It revealed overwhelming environmental damage. Chlorine contamination was 12 times higher than the Japanese standard, lead 1.7 times, arsenic 3.5 times, mercury 1.2 times and selenium 15 times higher. High concentrations of chromium, a metal believed to cause lung cancer, were also found.
In a letter last September to the California-based Universal Studios Recreation Group, Yoneko Matsura of Osaka’s Mihariban Citizens’ Watchdog Group accused Sumitomo of deceiving the city and the public about the contamination. “We have lost faith in the Universal Studios project and no longer trust either the city or Universal Studios Japan to build an environmentally safe theme park,” Matsura wrote.
Despite the revelations, Universal Studios Japan is still on track for a 2001 opening date, according to Jim Yeager, director of public relations for the Universal Studios Recreation Group. After first claiming that Mihariban is “a tiny group affiliated with the Japanese Communist Party,” Yeager outlined the current cleanup plans, which he said will take about 18 months. “We knew going in that almost anywhere we decided to build would have environmental challenges,” he says. “The city has undertaken exhaustive analysis of the site with a blue-ribbon committee of leading environmental academics at the top universities in the area, and that committee has made recommendations for a thorough cleanup of the site. We will rigorously implement whatever is necessary to prepare for a world-class theme park.”
Osaka is a heavily industrialized city, and like most of Japan, operated until recently with very limited environmental regulations. Much of Sumitomo’s dumping was probably legal when it occurred (though covering it up would presumably not be). Given Japanese overcrowding and pervasive industrial pollution, it’s unlikely that an alternative site of comparable size could be found. Cleaning up Sumitomo’s mess, Yeager says, “appears to be doable.”
In a statement, Universal Studios claims that the proposed cleanup, which will involve “removal and engineered entombment of both contaminated and even semi-contaminated soil” is “unprecedented for Japan.” The soil will be removed, but it won’t be taken off the site: The current plan is to bury it under the parking lot, in a plastic-lined concrete box. “What is being done is consistent with the way this would be handled for any of our Universal parks anywhere in the world, including the U.S.,” says the statement.
Stephen Lester begs to differ. As science director for the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice, he says that the proposed cleanup, which raises the possibility of heavy metals leaching into the soil and groundwater under the parking lot, would not likely pass muster in the U.S., particularly with porous blacktop as a covering. “The risk depends on how the entombment is done, but you wouldn’t find that sort of cleanup here,” he says. “There’s too much risk of future exposure, particularly in a public place like a theme park.”
Consultant Steven Spielberg has not yet been to Osaka to see the site, according to Marvin Levy, a spokesman for his film companies Amblin and DreamWorks SKG. But Spielberg has environmental problems even without the Osaka theme park, since DreamWorks is fighting a bitter battle over plans to build Playa Vista, a corporate headquarters complex that would obliterate part of the Ballona Wetlands outside Los Angeles.
“Nobody has said ‘no’ to Steven Spielberg in a long time,” says Marcia Hanscom, executive director of DreamWorks opponent Wetlands Action Network. “It’s a typical Hollywood thing in which you think that the virtual reality they create is just as good or better than the nature they destroy.” Levy counters that “no one person has done as much for environmental causes as Steven. And he’ll do more for the Ballona Wetlands than anyone dreamed of before.”
Osaka officials are reportedly still worried that the project will collapse. “Universal Studios is very concerned about their image, especially as this is their first overseas venture,” said one official to The Japan Times.