U.S. prepares for biggest-ever Agent Orange cleanup in Vietnam

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (R) meets Vietnam’s Defence Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam October 17, 2018. 

REUTERS WED OCT 17, 2018

Phil Stewart

BIEN HOA AIR BASE, Vietnam (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday visited a former American air base in southern Vietnam that will soon become the biggest-ever U.S. cleanup site for contamination left by the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Standing near a skull-and-crossbones warning sign meant to keep people away from toxic soil, Mattis was briefed by Vietnamese officials about the massive contamination area.

In a possible sign of the sensitivity surrounding Agent Orange in Vietnam, where millions of people are still suffering its effects, reporters were not allowed to attend the outdoor briefing for Mattis at Bien Hoa Air Base.

“I came to show the support of the Defense Department for this project and demonstrate that the United States makes good on its promises,” Mattis told his Vietnamese counterpart at a closed-door meeting later in nearby Ho Chi Minh City.

Cleanup is expected to start getting under way early next year.

Of the 4.8 million Vietnamese who were exposed to Agent Orange, some three million are still dealing with its effects, including children born with severe disabilities or other health issues years after their parents were exposed, according to the Hanoi-based Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange.

WARMING RELATIONS

More than four decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, ties between the United States and Vietnam are less seen through the prism of the conflict and more through shared concerns over China.

Vietnam has emerged as the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and has been buying U.S. military hardware, including an armed, Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutter.

The United States, in turn, accuses China of militarizing the strategic waterway, through which more than $3 trillion in cargo passes every year, and sees Vietnam as a crucial ally in drawing regional opposition to Beijing’s behavior.

But U.S. officials including Mattis – who is on his second trip to Vietnam just this year – hope that addressing America’s wartime legacies like Agent Orange can become a vehicle for further strengthening ties.

When a U.S. aircraft carrier visited Vietnam in March, for example, one of the places U.S. sailors visited was a Vietnamese shelter for people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.

The United States just completed a five-year, $110 million program that cleaned soil contaminated by Agent Orange at Danang International Airport, which was one of the main air bases used for storing and spraying the herbicide between 1961 and 1971.

But officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is overseeing the project, said the Bien Hoa site will be four times larger than Danang, a massive undertaking that is expected to cost $390 million, according to a fact sheet distributed to reporters.

According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), one soil sample from Bien Hoa had a “toxic equivalency,” or TEQ, of more than 1,000 times over the international limit.

A 2011 study conducted by a private consulting firm determined that contaminated soil had spread from hot spots at the base into nearby lakes, ponds, creeks, and drainage ditches, increasing the amount of soil and sediment that will require treatment.

“The impacts on the community is very difficult to measure. Dioxin has impacts (on health) at very low concentrations and they’re not real consistent,” one of the U.S. AID officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
____________

Clarification:

Chuck Searcy forwarded a clarification from Tim Rieser, senior foreign policy aide to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy who, as Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has played a major role in securing funding for Viet Nam, along with Laos and Cambodia, to deal with the legacies of war that still plague those countries — unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange / dioxin.

Tim wrote: “Chuck, just to clarify, the US share is $300M over ten years, half of which is to be paid by State/USAID, and half by DoD. VN has pledged $90M. We also expect Japan to contribute.”

TĐH

Further clarifications of hot spots

Chuck Searcy: I want to share with the Landmines Working Group and others this exchange with Charles Bailey.

It clarifies a mischaracterization — about which I have also been careless — of the remaining challenge in Viet Nam regarding “hotspots” and ultimate solutions to the dioxin contamination problem that continues to be a vague concern among Vietnamese citizens and international friends.

As Charles notes in this message, and clearly documents in the book he co-authored with Dr. Le Ke Son (From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange), the remaining sites loosely called hotspots do not, in fact, have dioxin levels high enough even to trigger a cleanup. That’s an important fact to remember, especially when we are explaining to others less informed about the precise nature of the problem as it remains today.

And the remaining challenge, which up to now has been secondary to the technical cleanup priority, is to deal with the continuing burden of so many Vietnamese families whose severely disabled family members are presumed to be suffering from consequences of Agent Orange. (And we do not omit American veterans and their families, also, who finally are receiving recognition and assistance from the U.S. government.)

The connection between Agent Orange / dioxin and birth defects, illnesses, severe disabilities is not proven, of course, and it doesn’t really matter; regardless of the cause, families dealing with severe disabilities usually need a lot of attention and assistance from governments, institutions and local resources. That should now be the priority for all of us.

Thanks to Charles Bailey for this important point, which describes with more clarity and precision the challenge that we in the Agent Orange Working Group, veterans, and others involved in this issue must continue to grapple with.

CHUCK SEARCY

———- Forwarded message ———
From: Charles
Date: Fri, Dec 7, 2018 at 10:13 AM
Subject: Re: [aowg] AO at Bien Hoa Airbase
To: Chuck Searcy

Dear Chuck,

Thanks for your swift reply to my note.

According to my understanding, the concept of ‘dioxin hotspots’ originated in the study of the A Luoi valley by Dr. Tran Manh Hung (10-80 Committee) and Wayne Dwernychuk/Tom Boivin (Hatfield) in 1994-1999. My program at Ford funded them in 2003 to apply the same analysis to all former U.S. military bases in then South Vietnam. There were 2,735 of them. This took three years and their findings, reported in January 2006, identified 28 possible dioxin hotspots at former U.S. bases requiring further investigation. (In a number of cases MoD would not allow the MoH, 10-80 Committee/ Hatfield investigators to collect soil samples on the bases so they collected samples outside, around the perimeters.) This is how the idea of “28 hotspots” entered our collective consciousness.

It turned out however that only three were truly “deeply dioxin” hotspots— Phu Cat (7,000 cubic meters, now remediated into a passive landfill), Da Nang (90,000 cubic meters, now fully remediated, no more dioxin. Period.) and Bien Hoa (495,000 cubic meters, to be completed). MoD tested the other 25 and found that dioxin levels were below thresholds triggering a clean up under standards set by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Vietnam Environmental Administration. These data, base by base, appear for the first time in chapter 1 of our book.

I think that ‘dioxin hotspots’ were a good entry point a decade ago to begin a conversation about the impact of Agent Orange on Vietnam. They were the easiest part of this issue politically and they had a remedy—clean up the bases! This remedy has many fascinating aspects which can easily fill an entire conversation with virtually anyone. That, however,usually extinguishes the time, except as an afterthought, to talk about the much more complex part of this issue. It is the real heart of the matter—how to acknowledge, recognize and help the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

So, let’s be done with the preoccupation with hotspots and clean up.It’s served its purpose—to launch a conversation about this particular American war legacy—and the Bien Hoa clean up will now happen. So now let’s launch a new conversation about how to make American assistance effective and sustainable for severely disabled Vietnamese children and youth, aka Agent Orange victims..

I’m happy to have your further thoughts about this.

Best, Charles

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