Da Nang Agent Orange cleanup a first step, but questions abound

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Critics say US engagement on dioxin could be realpolitik, not humanitarianism

  Nguyen Thi Binh (1st, L), 76, talks to reporters during an interview next to her mentally and physically disabled children (L-R) Nguyen Thanh Cong, 37, Nguyen Thi Phiet, 54 and Nguyen Thi Phuoc, 50, at her home near Da Nang City's airport, where a ground-breaking ceremony of the joint US-Vietnam Dioxin Cleaning Project was held on August 9. Photo: AFP

No sooner had US and Vietnamese officials clapped after cutting the ribbon than Nguyen Van Tinh sulked away from the site. He was clearly a troubled man.

It was the start of a US-Vietnam project to clean up dioxin, the toxic chemical left behind by Agent Orange, at a former American airbase in the central city of Da Nang.

Tinh stood next to a barbed wire fence that marked the boundary of the airbase near Da Nang International Airport.

 "Everybody is hopeful that the dioxin contamination will be over. I'm concerned it will continue to be here," he told Vietweek.

People in Da Nang's Thanh Khe District, of which Tinh is the deputy mayor, have for years eaten their catches from Xuan Hoa A Lake, which is fed directly by the dioxin-contaminated Sen (Lotus) Lake next to the airbase.

At a conference on August 8, a day before the dioxin cleanup project began, Tinh had grilled US and Vietnamese officials on what they planned to do about the likely dioxin contamination in Xuan Hoa A Lake, which is in his district. But no one had a satisfactory answer.

"We need to know exactly how serious the dioxin contamination there is," he said.

Tinh was not the only one who was not celebrating the start of the US$43-million project that has attracted international attention.

Analysts have raised two important questions: how much will the cleanup benefit Vietnam's millions of Agent Orange victims? And is the move less humanitarian than it is a clever geopolitical ploy to enhance US power in Asia as a buffer against China?

Double standards

The Da Nang cleanup project aims to decontaminate around 73,000 cubic meters of soil and sediment by late 2016, using thermal desorption technology. Workers will dig up contaminated soil and sediment and place it in a stockpile. The soil will then be heated to temperatures high enough to break down the dioxin.


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Asked if the project means the US was taking responsibility for Agent Orange, David Shear, the US ambassador, dodged the question. "We certainly take the Vietnamese concerns about this extremely seriously," he told a group of reporters at the cleanup's opening ceremony last week.

Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam. Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical in the defoliant used by the US troops to strip Vietnamese forces of ground cover and food, stays in the soil and sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals and has been found at alarmingly high levels in breastmilk that dioxin-contaminated mothers have fed their children.

The US Congress appropriated an initial $3 million for cleaning up dioxin hotspots in Vietnam in 2007 and in April 2011 approved another $18.5 million in new funding to address the consequences of Agent Orange.

Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases during the Vietnam War, which ended in April 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.

Washington has bristled at these estimates. It has maintained that there is no clear link between Agent Orange and the myriad health problems.

But at the same time, the US has come to acknowledge a number of conditions and diseases as associated with Agent Orange exposure in its own veterans and has thus compensated them accordingly. It refuses to do so for the Vietnamese who were on the receiving end of the spraying.

Some American veterans have expressed sympathy toward their Vietnamese counterparts, and bitterness toward their own government for the perceived injustice.

"I have always argued that, at the very least, the US recognize the same illnesses they recognize in the American veteran who suffers from Agent Orange related diseases in the Vietnamese," said Chuck Palazzo, a former US Marine and combat veteran in Vietnam (1970-1971) who now lives in Da Nang.

"It is hypocritical for the US to place this unnecessary burden of proof on the Vietnamese while it does not do so for its own veterans."

The US said it has provided $54 million since 1989 to help Vietnamese with disabilities, but also stressed that such assistance was "regardless of cause."

Despite overwhelming international and Vietnamese studies linking dioxin to health calamities, the US has been calling for increased research on the effects of the chemical on the Vietnamese population.

The US and Vietnam have not jointly conducted any research on the health effects of Agent Orange on human beings. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2002 that outlined comprehensive human health investigations and studies addressing the environmental consequences of Agent Orange.

But experts now fear the study will never be undertaken.

Wayne Dwernychuk, an Agent Orange specialist and retired senior scientist at Canadian environmental firm Hatfield, wrote in a recent article: "Although the environmental component of the MOU gained traction and resulted in valuable information being gathered, the human health segment became mired in controversy and disagreements on protocol, and eventually disintegrated, thus terminating any attempt to cooperatively study the human health consequences of the herbicide in the Vietnam theater of conflict."

But like Palazzo, Dwernychuk points to the fact that the US recognizes Agent Orange as the cause of its own veterans' problems while arguing that it might not be the cause of the same problems in Vietnam.

"The US policy is based on the "˜presumption of an association' between exposure and disease, not on a "˜proof of cause and effect,'" Dwernychuk wrote, adding that the US compensates its veterans based on whether or not they had "boots on the ground" in Vietnam during the war.

"If this "˜relationship' holds for US Vietnam veterans in the eyes of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, I ask why does it not hold for the Vietnamese people for the expression of the same illnesses that coincide with their exposure to Agent Orange?"

Asked by Vietweek why the US demands more evidence to compensate Vietnamese victims that it does for Americans, Spencer Cryder, the US embassy press attaché, failed to answer the question in his emailed reply.

According to Fred Wilcox, author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, the first book of testimonies of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, the cleanup in Da Nang does not reflect a change in US policy on Agent Orange.

"So while it might seem that removing dioxin from the soil around Da Nang is a great step forward in resolving the Agent Orange issue, I think that it is a clever way for the US government and chemical companies to avoid taking responsibility for war crimes," Wilcox told Vietweek.

He said that by agreeing to spend $43 million to remove dioxin from the soil around Da Nang, "it would appear that the US government does realize that human beings should never be exposed to even minute quantities of dioxin."

"Nevertheless, the government refuses to compensate Vietnamese victims of chemical warfare because to do so would mean admitting that the US committed war crimes in Vietnam," Wilcox said.

"This would open the door to lawsuits that would cost the government billions of dollars."

Decades of denial

American political author Noam Chomsky emphasized the context of the Da Nang cleanup: "It is now more than 50 years since President John F. Kennedy authorized chemical warfare in South Vietnam to destroy food crops and ground cover, part of his sharp escalation of a war that became the worst crime since World War II as it spread over all of Indochina, with shocking consequences until the present day."

"A second crime is the virtual suppression of the truth about these matters in the United States," Chomsky wrote in an email to Vietweek.

"One should recall that shortly after US troops were withdrawn, President Jimmy Carter, probably the most moderate of US presidents, informed the press that we owe Vietnam "˜no debt' because "˜the destruction was mutual,' eliciting no comment."

Around five million Vietnamese were killed in the Vietnam War, and hundreds of thousands are still missing. Less than 60,000 Americans died.


Even once the two former foes normalized relations in 1995 after a crippling post-war US embargo had strangled Vietnam for twenty years, Vietnamese diplomats considered Agent Orange the singularly thorny issue that thwarted the full thawing of relations.

But they also noted that there have been signs of progress as the US, which previously dismissed Vietnam's assertion that Agent Orange caused health problems as "propaganda," has come to acknowledge the need to modify its policy in this regard.

According to a report prepared in 2009 by Michael Martin of the Congressional Research Service, one potential benefit of the development of a comprehensive policy on Agent Orange in Vietnam could be the enhancement of the US's soft power in Southeast Asia.

A year later, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, a panel of policymakers, scientists and citizens formed in 2007 to look for ways to address the lingering issue, launched an action plan urging for the first time the US government and other donors to provide an estimated total of $300 million over the next decade to clean up sites still contaminated by dioxin and treat Vietnamese with disabilities, including those believed linked to Agent Orange exposure.

The first phase of the Da Nang cleanup began with work of removing unexploded ordnances in June last year. It formally kicked off after the Obama administration announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region and amidst rising tensions between Vietnam and China in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and straddles vital global shipping lines.

Several experts have said the event must be considered from a global geopolitical point of view: Da Nang is a strategic deep water harbor in the East Sea, where China is rapidly expanding its military, economic and civilian presence.

Former Vietnam War correspondent and author John Pilger told Vietweek that the cleanup in Da Nang was "designed, I suggest, to persuade the government of Vietnam to join the US anti-China campaign."

Asked to be more clear if the cleanup in Da Nang was in fact a way for the US to gain influence in the region, Martin did not mention his earlier report's claim that the two developments might be related:

"The current clean-up project is being supported primarily to remove a harmful chemical from the environment so it can no longer possibly contribute to health problems among the people of Da Nang," he told Vietweek.

However, Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute, said reading the Da Nang cleanup as part of a larger US campaign to gain Asian allies and enhance US power in the region as a buffer against China was correct.

Though he said the dioxin cleanup was "too little too late" he also hoped it would lead to a wider and more intensive effort to clean up the residue and treat the human effects of Agent Orange.

"Its [Agent Orange's] use was chemical warfare really"”something the US routinely accuses "˜rogue' countries of planning or implementing," Valencia said.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, disagreed that the Da Nang cleanup was part of US efforts to counter Chinese power in the region, but said that Vietnam still plays a role in such efforts.

"The real linkage in US thinking is access for its military in Vietnam in exchange for countering China in the South China Sea."

"˜Dad, am I contaminated?'

Supporters and critics and critical supporters of the Da Nang cleanup all agree on one thing: Da Nang is only one of dozens of site in need of serious cleanup.

The Bien Hoa Airbase in the south, and Da Nang and Phu Cat airports in central Vietnam are widely recognized as major "dioxin hotspots" where Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides were mixed, stored, loaded onto planes and spilled by US military personnel during the Vietnam War.

Cryder, the US embassy spokesman, said: "At the [Vietnamese government]'s request, we have focused so far on Da Nang."

But he added that the US is also preparing an environmental assessment of the Bien Hoa hotspot in coordination with the Vietnamese government, the United Nations Development Program, and other donors.

On a Sunday afternoon, Bien Hung Park in Bien Hoa Town seemed like an ideal getaway from sultry Ho Chi Minh City 35 kilometers southeast of the southern town.

But in April last year, Hatfield released new findings that confirmed the presence of military defoliants in Bien Hung Lake sediment. The Canadian firm also warned the local government to keep people from the cultivation of fish, ducks, and livestock at Bien Hoa Airbase.

Little has been done at Bien Hung Park to inform the public of the findings save a few scant "no fishing" signs that do not elaborate.

But residents told Vietweek they knew the story.

"I have been living here for decades and the dioxin contamination is nothing strange to me," said Chau Van Tuong, a 37-year-old local who was sipping a tiny cup of ruou de (fermented rice alcohol) on the edge of the Bien Hung Lake. He lives in a neighborhood adjacent to the park.

"We have been fishing and eating the catch here for years," Tuong said.

Tuong said his second brother and fourth sister scout for fish and snails in the lake to eke out a living. They have both tested positive for dioxin contamination. Two of his sister's sons died at birth and two of his brother's children are mentally retarded.

Tuong blamed all the illnesses on the exposure to dioxin. He was fully aware of the new Da Nang cleanup.

"Why don't they clean up all the mess across the country at the same time? The victims have no time to wait," Tuong said.

Tuong himself has two kids with his oldest daughter at age 10. She has been doing well so far, he said.

"But I'm scared whenever I think about my unfortunate brother and sister," he said. "I don't know what will happen to my kids."

His daughter, Mai, was playing on a bright green lawn next to him. Hearing what her father said, she stopped playing and came to ask him: "Dad, am I [dioxin] contaminated?"

"No, dear," Tuong replied. "You'll be fine. Everything will be fine."

By An Dien Jon Dillingham, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the August 17th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
Calvin Godfrey contributed to this report

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