US, Vietnam Launch Agent Orange Cleanup

Posted on August 9, 2012

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HANOI — The United States and Vietnam’s defense ministry have launched the first cleanup operation to rid a former air base of a toxic dioxin left from the Vietnam war. Although many people have welcomed the move, some say it is too little, too late to help generations of people suffering birth defects and diseases linked to the chemical.

A warning sign stands in a field contaminated with dioxin near Danang airport, during a ceremony marking the start of a cleanup project at a former U.S. military base in Danang, Vietnam, August 9, 2012.

The project, which started Thursday, aims to clean up soil and sediment contaminated with dangerous levels of toxin dioxin at a former U.S. Army air base in central Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, Da Nang airport was used to store the herbicide “Agent Orange” which was sprayed on vegetation used as cover by guerrilla forces.

Facts About Agent Orange

  • Blend of herbicides US military used in Vietnam between 1962 – 1971
  • Millions of liters sprayed to destroy enemy cover
  • Dioxin TCDD was a byproduct of Agent Orange production and is classified as a human carcinogen
  • Dries quickly after spraying
  • Breaks down within hours, days, (if not bound to soil) when exposed to sunlight and is no longer harmful
  • Name derived from orange stripe on drums in which chemical was stored

Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs

​​The toxin, which has been linked to disease and birth defects, has remained a dark reminder of the war. U.S. Ambassador David Shear spoke at the opening ceremony in Da Nang.

“The dioxin in the ground here is a legacy of the painful past we share, but the project we undertake here today hand in hand with the Vietnamese is, as Secretary Clinton said, a sign of the hopeful future we are building together,” he stated.

Da Nang is the most toxic of 28 dioxin “hot spots” in Vietnam. The $43 million project will excavate and clean up 73,000 cubic meters of soil and sediment around the airport. The U.S. embassy said the soil should be safe for use by 2016.

“This process uses high temperatures to break down the dioxin in the contaminated soil and make it safe by Vietnamese and U.S. standards for the many men, women and children who live and work in this area,” said Shear.

Some have hailed the project as a historic turning point for both governments after years of wrangling over the issue.

The defoliant killed off millions of acres of vegetation and has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, cancer and birth defects. However, Washington has not admitted liability for health problems caused by the chemical.

Over the last 13 years, the U.S. has provided $54 million to help disabled people in Vietnam, but not specifically to problems linked to Agent Orange.

Mai The Chinh, head of the information board for the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, known as VAVA, says he thinks Washington has not done enough.

He says it has taken too long for the U.S. to clean up the area and they have not given any money to support health care for dioxin victims.

He says at least three million people have birth defects because of Agent Orange, including at least 300,000 children.

Several orphanages across the country make a special point of taking in children believed to be affected by Agent Orange.

Images abound of babies at these centers with deformed heads looking through the bars of their cots and toddlers with twisted limbs being fed rice gruel.

Thanh Xuan Peace Village, just outside Hanoi, houses hundreds of these children. Director Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuong, says funding is difficult, especially during times of economic crisis.

She says the life of children affected by Agent Orange is more difficult than most, so they are in desperate need of support.

She says she thinks the United States has not done enough to help rid Vietnam of dioxin contamination because the poison continues to affect people three generations after the war ended and there are other hotspots in the country besides Da Nang.

However, she says the center has received help from some unlikely sources. Some American veterans have returned to Vietnam to support the Peace Village and made generous donations. Some were themselves exposed to the herbicide and their own children have been born with deformities.

The U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin estimates $450 million is needed to completely eliminate dioxin “hot spots” and provide care, education and economic opportunities to those affected. It may be nearly 40 years since the end of the conflict.  Some observers say the cleanup project in Da Nang is a small but crucial step in helping heal the scars of war.

Agent Orange Clean-Up Boosts US-Vietnam Relations

A ribbon worn by a protester supporting Agent Orange victims is seen outside of a New York court on June 18, 2007. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Vietnamese and American officials have launched a clean-up operation of areas that were contaminated by Agent Orange, marking a turning point in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

Speaking at a launch ceremony at Danang Airport on Vietnam’s south central coast on Thursday, Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister, Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh said the project was a result of the resolve of both governments and noted that it would be run jointly by his ministry and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

U.S. Ambassador David Shear indicated a willingness to move to a new level of engagement on the issue.

“We are both moving earth and taking the first steps to bury the legacies of our past,” he said adding,“ I look forward to even more successes to follow.”

Dr. Steve Maxner, director of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, described the launch as “symbolic on a number of levels,” belying tensions surrounding the issue in the past and marking a more mature level of engagement between the two countries.

“We have come to the point in our relationship with Vietnam when we can look at this as a humanitarian issue,” he said.

Non-Negotiable in Past
Between 1960 and 1972, the United States sprayed about 19 million gallons of herbicides, primarily Agent Orange, over Vietnam, according to U.S. think tank, The Aspen Institute. The defoliant contained the toxic chemical dioxin, which takes decades to break down. It was stored, sprayed, and spilled across the country, penetrating the food chain through earth, crops, and ground water.

According to the Red Cross, over 3 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including at least 150,000 children born with serious birth defects.

For the Vietnamese, the contaminant has remained the number one issue they wanted resolved, but the United States had remained “intransigent on the idea,” says Maxner, and refused to even acknowledge to its own servicemen that Agent Orange had been harmful. The biggest unresolved issue on the American side, meanwhile, has been soldiers Missing in Action (MIAs), but there has been recent progress on that front too.

“They [Vietnamese] have been helping with MIAs and now we are trying to reach out and help with what is very important to them, Agent Orange remediation and dioxin clean-up,” Maxner said.

Help From Congress
Some analysts have pointed to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the recent U.S. refocus on the Asia-Pacific region, as a major influence in this week’s initiative, but Maxner says a complex of factors contributed.

He believes the Vietnam War veterans in Congress, presently numbering around 60 members, played a big part. Like many veterans, these members of Congress are concerned about the communist administration in Vietnam, and the human rights abuses and lack of religious freedom that go with it. But more than that, a number of key members of Congress have visited Vietnam and seen the devastation created by Agent Orange for themselves.

“They have seen the effects of this on the population around them and they often see how difficult it is for the Vietnamese to manage their day-to-day challenges, let alone trying to do a huge environmental project,” he said.

The battle Vietnam War veterans waged to get their illnesses recognized as a result of Agent Orange was hard-fought, but it has largely been won. Maxner believes this recognition also contributed to the willingness of Washington to see the issued resolved.

“I think it is part of finally just saying OK, we are going to help because we can’t have that double standard, and our government should accept that,” he said.

The clean-up project, which will involve digging up, stockpiling, and then treating contaminated soil, is expected to continue for at least a few years, Ambassador Shear said in a statement.

The Epoch Times

4 Decades on, U.S. Starts Cleanup of Agent Orange in Vietnam

DA NANG, Vietnam — In the tropical climate of central Vietnam, weeds and shrubs seem to grow everywhere — except here.

Forty years after the United States stopped spraying herbicides in the jungles of Southeast Asia in the hopes of denying cover to Vietcong fighters and North Vietnamese troops, an air base here is one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted with an especially toxic strain of dioxin, the chemical contaminant in Agent Orange that has been linked to cancers, birth defects and other diseases.

On Thursday, after years of rebuffing Vietnamese requests for assistance in a cleanup, the United States inaugurated its first major effort to address the environmental effects of the long war.

“This morning we celebrate a milestone in our bilateral relationship,” David B. Shear, the American ambassador to Vietnam, said at a ceremony attended by senior officers of the Vietnamese military. “We’re cleaning up this mess.”

The program, which is expected to cost $43 million and take four years, was officially welcomed with smiles and handshakes at the ceremony. But bitterness remains here. Agent Orange is mentioned often in the news media, and victims are commemorated annually on Aug. 10, the day in 1961 when American forces first tested spraying it in Vietnam. The government objected to Olympics sponsorship this year by Dow Chemical, a leading producer of Agent Orange during the war. Many here have not hesitated to call the American program too little — it addresses only the one site — and very late.

“It’s a big step,” said Ngo Quang Xuan, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations. “But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it’s not enough.”

Over a decade of war, the United States sprayed about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, halting only after scientists commissioned by the Agriculture Department issued a report expressing concerns that dioxin showed “a significant potential to increase birth defects.” By the time the spraying stopped, Agent Orange and other herbicides had destroyed 2 million hectares, or 5.5 million acres, of forest and cropland, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

Nguyen Van Rinh, a retired lieutenant general who is now the chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, has vivid memories of hearing American aircraft above the jungles of southern Vietnam and seeing Agent Orange raining down in sheets on him and his troops. Plants and animals exposed to the defoliant were dead within days. Many of his troops later suffered illnesses that he suspects were linked to the repeated exposure to Agent Orange, used in concentrations 20 to 55 times that of normal agricultural use.

“I would like to have one message sent to the American people,” Mr. Rinh said in his office, where a large bust of Ho Chi Minh, the wartime leader and icon, stared down from a shelf behind his desk. “The plight of Agent Orange victims continues. I think the relationship would rise up to new heights if the American government took responsibility and helped their victims and address the consequences.”

Those who have worked on the issue say the American government has been slow to address the issue in part because of concerns about liability. It took years for American soldiers who sprayed the chemicals to secure settlements from the chemical companies that produced them. The United States government, which also lagged in acknowledging the problem, has spent billions of dollars on disability payments and health care for American soldiers who came into contact with Agent Orange.

Mr. Shear, the American ambassador, sidestepped a reporter’s question after the ceremony about whether the United States would take responsibility for the environmental and health effects of Agent Orange.

“There is a disconnect between what America has done for its soldiers and what America has done for Vietnam,” said Charles Bailey, the director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program, an effort by the Aspen Institute, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, to reach common ground between the United States and Vietnam on the issue. “I’m sometimes glad I’m not a U.S. diplomat in trying to square that circle.”

A class-action case against chemical companies filed in the United States on behalf of millions of Vietnamese was dismissed in 2005 on the grounds that supplying the defoliant did not amount to a war crime and that the Vietnamese plaintiffs had not established a clear causal effect between exposure to Agent Orange and their health problems. The United States government is rolling out a modest $11.4 million program to help people with disabilities in Vietnam, but it is not explicitly linked to Agent Orange. The oft-repeated American formulation is “assistance regardless of cause.”

When environmental factors are linked to disease, proof positive is sometimes hard to determine. American military studies have outlined connections between Agent Orange and myriad ailments, while Dow Chemical maintains that the “very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans’ illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange.”

In Vietnam, there are many cases in which links to Agent Orange appear striking.

Nguyen Van Dung, 42, moved to Da Nang in 1996 with his wife and newborn daughter and worked at the former American base, wading through the knee-deep mud of drainage ditches and dredging them with a shovel. During the first 10 years, he, like other employees, harvested fish and eels from the large ponds and canals on the air base grounds, taking them home almost daily. Studies later showed high concentrations of dioxin in the fat tissue and organs of the fish.

The couple’s first daughter is now at the top of her class, but their second child, also a girl, was born in 2000 with a rare blood disease. She died at 7.

Their son Tu was born in 2008, and he was quickly found to have the same blood condition. With regular transfusions, he has defied his doctor’s prediction that he would not live past 3, but he is nearly blind, with bulging eyes that roll wildly, and he speaks in high-pitched tones that only his parents can understand. His chest cavity is so weak that he cannot breathe if he lies on his stomach.

What caused the birth defects, and who is to blame? Detailed medical tests are out of the question for Tu’s parents, whose combined monthly income is the equivalent of $350, much of which goes to medical care.

But Luu Thi Thu, the boy’s mother, does not hesitate to assign blame.

“If there hadn’t been a war and Americans hadn’t sprayed dioxin and chemicals into this area, we wouldn’t be suffering these consequences,” she said.

“What happened to my son is already done, and nothing can change that,” she said. “The American and Vietnamese governments need to clean up the Da Nang airport so that the next generation will not be affected.”

Le Ke Son, a doctor and the most senior Vietnamese official responsible for the government’s programs related to Agent Orange and other chemicals used during the war, said the debates should take a back seat to aid. “We spend a lot of time arguing about the reason why people are disabled,” he said. “One way or another they are victims and suffered from the legacy of the war. We should do something for them.”

Thomas Fuller

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Posted in: Environment, Society