US To Clean Up Agent Orange In Vietnam 40 Years After War Ends
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
It has been forty years since the US military last dumped toxic Agent Orange over Vietnam´s forests, meant to destroy cover for guerillas and drive villagers into US-dominated cities. Now, decades later, the United States is pitching in for the first time to aid in cleaning up from the ten years of havoc it caused on Vietnam´s ecosystem.
A strain of dioxin found in Agent Orange has been linked to birth defects, stillbirths, cancers and other diseases. The toxin has affected millions of people in Vietnam as well as American troops fighting in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1971. Efforts to eradicate the contaminant is seen as an attempt to restore diplomacy between Washington and Hanoi.
“We are both moving earth and taking the first steps to bury the legacies of our past,” US ambassador, David Shear, said at a ceremony near a former US base in the Vietcong, marked by a rusty barbed-wire fence. “I look forward to even more success to follow.”
The project, costing $43 million and being funded jointly, is expected to take about four years to complete. The US effort, which Vietnam had been requesting help with for years, was welcomed with smiles and handshakes at the ceremony. However, bitterness remains. Agent Orange is mentioned fairly often in the news media, and Vietnam victims are commemorated annually on August 10, the anniversary of the date in 1961 when American forces first tested the chemical in Vietnam.
Washington has been slow to react to the issue, equivocating for years over the need for more research to show that the dioxin caused health problems and birth defects in the Vietnamese. The US has offered up about $60 million for environmental restoration since 2007, but this is the first direct involvement seen.
The project is being led by the US Agency for International Development and the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense. Cleanup in Danang aims to decontaminate about 71 acres of land. Workers will dig up soil, stockpile it, and then treat it with high temperatures to break down the dioxin.
Agent Orange is “one of the most toxic compounds known to humans,” according to the United Nations.
This is a “big step,” said Ngo Quang Xuan, former Vietnamese ambassador to the UN. “But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it´s not enough.”
Over 10 years, the US sprayed close to 20 million gallons of the toxic chemical in forested regions and farmlands around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the time spraying stopped, Agent Orange had destroyed more than 5 million acres of land, roughly an area the size of New Jersey.
The Guardian/Associated Press reports that the Danang site is closed to the public, part of which consists of a dry field where US troops once stored and mixed the chemical before being loaded onto planes. Faint chemical smells still mark the area, as was noticed in Thursday´s visit by US officials. The contaminated area also includes lakes and wetlands. A high concrete wall blocks access to the area to keep residents from fishing in the tainted waters.
Nguyen Van Rinh, a retired lieutenant general who is now the chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, said he has vivid memories of hearing American aircraft above the jungles of southern Vietnam and seeing the chemical raining down in sheets on him and his troops. Plants and animals exposed to the defoliant were dead within days and many of his troops have suffered illnesses he suspects are linked to prolonged exposure to Agent Orange.
“I would like to have one message sent to the American people,” Mr. Rinh said in his office. “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.”
During a round of questioning at the ceremony, Shear avoided one question from a reporter on 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,” Charles Bailey, the director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program, told Thomas Fuller at the New York Times. “I´m sometimes glad I´m not a US diplomat in trying to square that circle.”
Bailey´s program is an effort by the Aspen Institute, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, to reach common ground between the United States and Vietnam on the Agent Orange issue.
A judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit in 2005 that had been filed against US chemical companies on behalf of millions of Vietnamese. The dismissal came on the grounds that supplying the defoliant did not amount to a war crime and that plaintiffs had not established a clear causal effect between exposure to Agent Orange and their health problems.
American military studies have found connections between Agent Orange and countless ailments. Dow Chemical, however, maintains that the “very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans´ illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange.”