NARAHA, Japan — Two years after the triple calamities of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ravaged Japan’s northeastern Pacific coast, debris containing asbestos, lead, PCBs — and perhaps most worrying — radioactive waste due to the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi 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 organized crime has infiltrated the cleanup process.
Researchers are only beginning to analyze environmental samples for potential health implications from the various toxins swirled in the petri dish of the disaster zone — including dioxins, benzene, cadmium and organic waste-related, said Shoji F. 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 said.
The mountains of rubble and piles of smashed cars and scooters 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 multi-layer 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 construction company and pocketing one-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 say they suspect gangsters are systematically targeting reconstruction projects, swindling money from low-interest lending schemes for disaster-hit residents and illegally mobilizing construction and clean-up workers.
Meanwhile, workers complain of docked pay, unpaid hazard allowances — which should be 10,000 yen, or $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 Dai-Ichi released radiation into the surrounding air, soil and ocean.
“We are only part of a widespread problem,” said a 56-year-old cleanup worker, who asked to be identified only by his last name, 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 8,000 that is now a weedy no-man’s land within the 12-mile restricted zone around the crippled nuclear plant, workers wearing regular work clothes and surgical masks were scraping away topsoil, chopping tree branches and washing down roofs.
Naraha’s mayor, Yukiei Matsumoto, said that early on, he and other local officials were worried over improper handling of the $16 billion cleanup, 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.