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Strategic US clean-up in Vietnam

Asia Times - August 9, 2012

Richard S. Ehrlich, Bangkok A US$49 million US government effort begins this week to cleanse deadly Agent Orange herbicide from a former air base in Danang, central Vietnam, where Americans stored, loaded and washed chemical weapons while using the toxic defoliant during the Vietnam War.

The project will be launched on Thursday and is headed by Vietnam's Defense Ministry and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). "It's a ground-breaking effort between the governments of the US and Vietnam for a project which will clean up all the dioxin at the [Danang] airport remaining from the use of Agent Orange," said Charles Bailey, director of the Washington-based Aspen Institute's Agent Orange in Vietnam Program, in an interview on July 31 during a Bangkok stopover. He referred to the trip as a "historic opportunity".

"At Danang, there are some 70,000 cubic meters [2.5 million cubic feet] of contaminated soil that, over the next three years, will be cleaned up," Bailey said. "This is the first of several major hot-spots."

The cooperative effort comes amid a US policy "pivot" towards Asia where Washington bids to shore up and build new alliances to counterbalance China's rising influence in the region. China and Vietnam are locked in a diplomatic disagreement over contested territories in the South China Sea and Vietnam is known to be keen to expand strategic relations with the US, including greater access to sophisticated US weapons and military equipment. In recent years, Hanoi has allowed US warships to dock at its ports, including at Danang.

Some see the joint clean-up as a step towards closer bilateral strategic ties. From 2007 to 2012, the US Congress appropriated $48.7 million including $20 million in 2012 to decontaminate topsoil, lakes and silt at former US bases in Vietnam. An additional $13.7 million will come from the Ford Foundation and other private organizations, plus the United Nations, Vietnam and other countries. Danang will cost at least $43 million to clean. The full list of sites requires an additional $107 million, Bailey said.

Americans, Vietnamese and others are believed to have suffered deformities, diseases or death from dioxin and other herbicides, which the Pentagon used to clear jungles so Vietnamese communist soldiers could more easily be spotted, bombed, or deprived of crops and territory.

Danang, America's biggest air base during the Vietnam War, is one of the worst cases. Agent Orange was stored there in steel barrels, loaded onto warplanes, and washed out of the returning planes' spray tanks. USAID awarded the clean-up contract to Massachusetts-based TerraTherm Inc, Bailey said.

Vietnamese officials have long sought to internationalize the issue and condemn the defoliant's main producer, Dow Chemical, including at the ongoing 2012 London Olympic Games.

"The Dow Chemical Company is one of the major producers of the Agent Orange, which has been used by the US Army," wrote Hoang Tuan Anh, Vietnam's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on May 2.

"Eighty-million liters were sprayed over villages in the south of Vietnam over 10 years, from 1961 to 1971, destroying the environment, claiming the lives of millions of Vietnamese people and leaving terrible effects on millions of others who are now suffering from incurable diseases and some hundreds of thousands of children of the fourth generation were born with severe congenital deformities," he wrote.

"We think that the acceptance of IOC for Dow sponsorship was a hasty decision," the minister said.

In 2009, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Vietnamese to hold Dow Chemical and Monsanto liable for birth defects allegedly linked to Agent Orange. The US Veterans Administration, however, paid billions of dollars to Americans involved in the Vietnam War who later suffered illnesses suspected of being caused by dioxin.

In 1994, retired US Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr said in an interview he ordered millions of gallons of Agent Orange to be sprayed in Vietnam and would do so again, even though he later believed the dioxin caused his son to die from cancer. Zumwalt's son was a patrol boat commander in the Mekong River delta near Saigon when Agent Orange was being sprayed in the area.

"At the time we didn't know it was carcinogenic. The chemical companies that made it knew. But they told the Pentagon it was not," Zumwalt said. "Even knowing it was carcinogenic, I would use it again. We took 58,000 dead. My hunch is it would have been double that if we did not" spray, Zumwalt said, referring to the war's toll on Americans.

Today, Vietnam's hospitals and museums display jars stuffed with large fetuses that show birth defects such as two heads on one body, limbs sticking out of torsos, and other mutations.

Hanoi's communist regime, and some US scientists, blame Agent Orange. "The Vietnam Red Cross has said about 4.5 million [Vietnamese] people were affected, including 150,000 children," but estimates vary, Bailey said.

The US sprayed land where an estimated five million Vietnamese lived, and also poisoned Laos along its border with Vietnam, and around US bases in the Philippines and Thailand. The war ended in 1975 when the US and its collaborators in South Vietnam lost, allowing North Vietnam to reunite the Southeast Asian nation.

[Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His websites are http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com and http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists/sets.]

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