Last ghost of the war

opinion August 13, 2012 00:00

By Jim Pollard
The Nation

The US has begun helping Vietnam to eliminate 'hotpots' of dioxin left 40 to 50 years ago from use of Agent Orange


A landmark ceremony took place in Vietnam last week to eliminate one of the most toxic and tricky legacies of the American War. At the airport in the coastal city of Danang, an historic clean-up began on one of the worst “hotspots” of dioxin residue left behind from the use of Agent Orange during the conflict in the 1960s and 70s.
Agent Orange was the code for a herbicide used by the US military to clear swathes of forest and trees that might provide cover for communist troops in the long-running war. The name stems from an orange stripe on drums of the chemical, which was sprayed from specially adapted planes over designated target areas, such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Vietnam and Laos.
Army advisers saw the defoliant as a way to prevent ambushes and save the lives of American troops. It was not until a few years later, in the late 60s and early 70s, that scientists became alarmed at the wanton destruction of natural eco-systems and possible adverse repercussions of large-scale use of such herbicides. 
Unknown to the American troops who handled it, and sprayed it round the perimeter of their bases, the defoliant contained dioxin, one of the most deadly substances ever created. In the years since the war it has been linked to a legion of premature deaths by war veterans and severe genetic deformities in veterans’ children – in Vietnam and America, plus other countries which sent troops.
The government in Hanoi has struggled to bring this sensitive matter to international attention, in the hope that Washington might acknowledge it and assist them to deal with an inordinate burden. It says several million Vietnamese are stuck in poverty because family members died prematurely and some 150,000 children have disabilities attributed to Agent Orange.
But its efforts met with limited success amid argument over the alleged lack of scientific evidence to verify the dioxin in the defoliant as the precise cause of most individuals’ health problems. US courts encouraged an out-of-court settlement for American war veterans in 1984, but lawsuits on behalf of Vietnamese “victims” in recent years got nowhere with senior courts.
However, the door to a possible resolution opened in 2006, when the US re-established diplomatic relations and President Bush visited Hanoi for the APEC summit. A joint communiqué issued by Bush and his counterpart Nguyen Minh Triet was the first official acknowledgement that the US should play some role in dealing with the consequences of spraying 80 million litres of herbicide over some 21,000 square kilometres between 1962 and 1971, when the war was in full swing.
Bush’s move created room for action and the Democrat Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later went further, saying Agent Orange was an issue the US must address. 
Charles Bailey, the Ford Foundation representative in Hanoi from 1997 until 2007, played a key role in making things happen, helping to set up a group of eminent people from the US and Vietnam to discuss what needed to be done, working to locate and assess sites most contaminated by dioxin and funding projects for Vietnamese with disabilities.
Bailey, now director of the Aspen Institute’s “Agent Orange in Vietnam Program”, spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok recently (August 1) about the development of a $450-million multi-year plan of action to resolve this long drawn-out saga.
The eminent persons group is called the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Susan Berresford, a former president of the Ford Foundation, is the convener. Ambassador Ha Huy Thong, vice chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the National Assembly, and Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and a biographer, are the Vietnamese and American co-chairs. 
At its first meeting in Vietnam in February 2007 the group visited key sites and “talked about what to do to break this deadlock”, Bailey said. “They agreed that Agent Orange is a humanitarian concern we can do something about and they emphasised we need to look to the future. They then identified five priorities for immediate attention – expand health services for people with disabilities, remediate dioxin ‘hotspots’, restore landscapes, build a dioxin lab, and educate people in the US about the problem.”
About 30 suspected “hotspots” have been located – all former US bases during the war. The level of dioxin contamination at three of these – airbases in Danang, Bien Hoa and Phu Cat – was “head and shoulders” above the rest, he said.
Danang, a city on the central coast, was one of the busiest airports in the world in the mid-60s and was a main storage area for the defoliant, along with Bien Hoa. About 100,000 drums passed through the airbase in the 60s, but the city has now grown out to surround the former base. 
“The good news here is we know where [the contaminated area] is – and it’s in a small area,” Bailey said, pointing to a map with a highlighted section adjacent to the main strip. “It’s quite possible to clean it up and USAID and its partner, the Vietnamese Ministry of Defence, are going to do just that.”
Clean-up involves several stages, he said: 1)detect and measure the extent of contaminated soil; 2) “lock it down” so dioxin, which attaches to soil particles, isn’t washed elsewhere when it rains; 3) warn the local community about the hazard and 4) destroy the dioxin. The first three were completed by January 2008 and the fourth is just beginning.
The lockdown process saw concrete poured on an area the size of half a football field; and now some 77,000 square metres of contaminated soil is set for treatment. Moving such a large amount of toxic soil out of a large city was too difficult and risky. So it will be heated to 300C to destroy the dioxin in a special facility at the airfield – from last Friday (Agent Orange Day in Vietnam) until 2016.  
To date, $91 million has been assembled from the US government, foundations, UN agencies and other foreign governments, in addition to budgets provided over the years by Vietnam.  The US-Vietnam Dialogue Group projects that $450-million will be needed.  This includes $107m for clean-up operations and over $300m for social services. It’s a sum that Bailey described as “relatively modest” for a “concentrated effort that would go a long way to solve the problem”.
Washington had provided $48.7 million for dioxin clean-up and $11m for health and disabilities services over the past four years, he said, and donors such as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and major companies have also been contributing.
Bailey said while Americans were familiar with Agent Orange, many were “astounded” to learn the problem was unresolved. “Some see it as the last ghost of the war. There is a sense that for many Americans, we’re taught from an early age to clean up our mess. We didn’t intend to do this – no question, but there is this legacy.
“Everyone is keen to take this sad subject off the agenda. It’s been going on too long. Whether there’s a political payoff at the end [in terms of closer ties with Hanoi], sure, maybe – but what’s most important is that what is starting in Danang is good for Vietnam, good for Americans and good to put it behind us.”

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