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Citizen Journalism Fights Back in Japan
OhmyNews changes public policy with article on factory pollution
Mayumi Shimotai (eenews3)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-26 14:07 (KST)   
It was on Feb. 20 that I found an unusual looking sheet of paper in the post. It was a printed letter addressed to everyone in the town of Yorii, sent by the Department of Environment of Saitama Prefectural office. The text was as follows:
The other day it was reported that there were harmful substances including lead detected in the rainwater at the site of Sainokuni Resource Recycling Plant, exceeding the numerical target ruled by the Ministry of the Environment. We apologize for the fact that we caused you anxiety because of the delay of its announcement.

The plant that caused the leak has investigated the problem and has resolved it all already. Also it is confirmed that there was no leak into the rivers. We are committed to enforcing supervision on all the corporations so that they do not cause such an incident again, and at the same time we would like to do our best to operate the plant safely by settling a rule to inform you of whatever happens at the plant. We would like to ask for your understanding.
In addition to the above text, there was a description to explain the details from the cause to the resolution and a letter from the CEO of the corporation that caused the leak expressing their apology for the incident.

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Lead Leak from Recycling Plant

It was Jan. 26 when I submitted an article titled "Thorough Public Information: Residents Left Uninformed" to OhmyNews Japan. It appeared on the OhmyNews Japan Web site on Jan. 31.

I am a freelance writer, and in 2003 I moved to Yorii, which has a population of about 39,000 and is at the foot of the mountain range of Chichibu. And by chance I am one of the residents who are living in the surrounding area next to the Sainokuni Resource Recycling Plant.

I did not know about the plant then, because the construction began just after I moved in.

The plant was constructed as a project of Saitama Prefecture, and currently nine private corporations are operating recycling businesses dealing with products as varied as feces and heavy industrial waste.

For sure I was not happy finding the plant, especially because I chose this location for its bountiful nature. But it is not so easy to move again, and also it was no use to keep on complaining about what was already there. Then I decided to watch the environmental change carefully as a citizen hoping that there would be no defects at all.

However, in mid-December last year, I heard that there was a lead leak that was 27 times the recommended level. I was told by one of my friends who is also living in this area. For a few years now she has been developing activities in order to protect the environment as a member of a citizen group here in Yorii, and she heard about it from her acquaintance who happened to be in the office that is managing the whole plant.

The leak was found out on Sept. 1, 2006, and the investigation was almost completed. However, everything was kept from the public.

Obviously it was an urgent incident that everybody should know about. So my friend sent a message to major media outlets in Japan asking them to report on the incident.

However, none did so.

It was mid-January this year that I found out that the incident had not been announced neither by the Saitama Prefecture nor by the media. So I decided to write an article by myself and send it to OhmyNews Japan.

Mainstream Media Jump Aboard After OhmyNews Japan Reports Incident

There was a remarkable movement after my article appeared on OhmyNews Japan. My friend received a fax sheet from Tokyo Shimbun newspaper asking for confirmation of the incident. And on the following day, Feb. 2, there was a report on the incident both on the top page and on the social page.

To my surprise simultaneously all the Japanese media in the mainstream, not only newspapers but also TV and Radio including NHK (Japanese National Broadcasting Cooperation) reported about it.

It astonished citizen especially in Yorii, and on Feb. 7 a meeting was held at the town hall by Saitama Prefecture to explain the incident to citizen representatives. And Mr. Kanai who is the chief of the Department of Environment of Saitama Prefectural office apologized and explained the incident to about 200 participants.

By then it was likely that the majority of the citizens of Yorii had known about the incident but it was only those participants of the meeting on Feb. 7 who could hear officially announced details. The rest of the citizens were left in anxiety.

Therefore some of the citizen groups including my friend's visited the prefectural office to demand further action, such as holding a public meeting.

Then finally last week the letter quoted in the top paragraph was distributed to each household in Yorii.

Thank You OhmyNews

It is not known if the mainstream media read my article on OhmyNews Japan before they reported it. Honestly speaking I think that they did, because they had not paid any attention to it for more than one month after my friend sent the faxes about it, and all of a sudden two days after my article's appearance they reported it as an urgent issue.

Whatever the fact is, it does not matter much. It is true that owing to their reports many people beyond borders can now learn about the incident, and I would like to thank them frankly.

The crucial issue is the fact that the Japanese mainstream media did not try to sniff around the incident in the first place.

I wonder what would have happened if my article had not appeared on OhmyNews Japan? Is it my arrogance to imagine that the residents here would still be very proud of such an advanced facility without knowing the risk of it, cultivating the fields using the water from the rivers leading from it, fishing, swimming and so on.

Thank you OhmyNews for being a citizen media outlet and running my article.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Mayumi Shimotai

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