Scandal settles in Toyosu market's basement

Published on
October 20, 2016

The basement spaces under the buildings of the new Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market in Toyosu have become ground zero for a fishy scandal.

The Tosoyu project was supposed to be a hallmark project for Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, with the new complex set to take over the functions of famous Tsukiji market, where more than a million tons of seafood, fruits and vegetables worth JPY 600 billion (USD 5.8 billion, EUR 5.3 billion) are traded annually.

Since the discovery of the basements, Japanese media have pointed withering criticism at Gov. Koike, who allegedly hid their existence from the public. Once word got out that the spaces did in fact exist, Koike ran into further trouble when the reason for their construction emerged, and the scandal grew even larger when it emerged that their design ran counter to the recommendations of an independent panel of building experts consulting on the project.

The site chosen for the Tosoyu market is the former location of a Tokyo Gas facility. After the site was selected for the new market, inspectors found toxic materials, including benzene, at levels thousands of times higher than the environmentally allowable level.

The government’s official line is it ordered the removal of two meters of contaminated soil from the site before and replaced it with an additional 4.5 meters of clean soil, with building foundations laid atop the raised site—the course recommended by the experts. However, inspections in 2011 discovered that the extra soil was never added, and that builders had installed large, hollow basement areas in the market’s five major buildings, which have since filled with standing water. Each had been specially equipped with pipes, electrical wires and large hatches facilitating the operation of heavy equipment.

It turns out these are not just leaky basements. They were specially designed to collect groundwater for testing and were widely referred to in the government as “monitoring spaces.” If the groundwater tested beyond safety targets, the spaces were designed to be large enough to install and operate treatment equipment.

The government officials involved in the project, when questioned in public hearings, have used the vague explanation that they were designed to accommodate “piping.” This might refer to tanks and pipes for the precipitation/coprecipitation, the most common and cost-effective method used in mercury removal. The process involves adjusting the pH levels and adding sulfides or organosulfides to contaminated water. An additional step of adding a polymer is also sometimes needed. Government officials won’t admit it, but this process is commonly used in remediating water and soil contaminated by power plants.

Scarily, the treatment will probably be necessary at the Toyoso site, as surveys conducted on two occasions – 29 to 30 September and 6 to 7 October – have shown the air in the underground spaces contains levels of mercury up to seven times the national guideline of 0.04 micrograms per cubic meter.

What is obvious is that building the basements was not a matter of cutting corners to save money, as they were actually more expensive than laying fresh soil. They were certainly known to the head of the market, who had to approve the extra budget to construct them.

The basement spaces are not the real issue here. According to the government, the reason they were built – and the reason they were not made public – was that they were a contingency for “future risks.” What future risks did the government expect? It’s a valid question, considering they knew they were building a food market on a polluted brownfield site.

The real scandal is that the basements were not made public, that officials involved falsely claimed that they were approved by the independent technical committee, when in fact they were built counter to that body’s recommendation, and that the facility was deemed ready despite testing showing indications of residual contamination. Equally vexing is the administration’s insistence that the spaces were put in as a contingency, not as “Plan A.”

Whether the basement of a food market is a suitable place to conduct remediation of dangerous chemical compounds is another legitimate question that is not being answered by Koike or her administration. Understandably, the idea that risks would still exist even after remediation is not palatable to consumers, tenants or taxpayers, nor should it be.

Why all this secrecy? The Tokyo government officials’ actions are reminiscent of a line from Jack Nicholson’s character Col. Jessup in the movie “A Few Good Men.”

“You want the truth?” Jessup roars arrogantly in the movie, “You can’t handle the truth!”

The truth is that a polluted site is usually never completely cleaned up. Rather, the pollution is merely contained, and must be continually monitored and remediated. That doesn’t mean it’s actually dangerous, but it hardly sets a shopper’s mind at ease.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500