US, Vietnam take "first step to bury past legacies'

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A massive decontamination effort has begun in one of Vietnam's major dioxin hot spots nearly four decades after the end of the Vietnam War.

The project, which will involve the cleansing of around 73,000 cubic meters of land contaminated with dioxin, has, for the time being, put on the back-burner contentious, unresolved questions of culpability and compensation for millions affected by the toxic chemical that was sprayed by a US military operation titled Operation Ranch Hand.

The Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) newspaper reported that the project would create a 29-hectare dioxin-free area that will remove risks of dioxin infection to residents in the vicinity. The area can be exploited for economic purposes, the paper said.

"The project has been carefully planned to prevent any harmful impacts in the area of the airport where work will be performed and in the surrounding community. Safety measures will be in place to control dust, storm water runoff, and steam or vapor emissions," the USAID said in a statement on the launch of the project on Thursday.

The US is providing non-refundable aid of US$41 million for the project and the Vietnamese government will invest VND35 billion. The Vietnam People's Air Force and Air Defense Services will carry out the project that is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

"The war ended more than 35 years ago, but consequences of the US Army's herbicide use in Vietnam remain very serious," the Quan Doi Nhan Dan newspaper quoted deputy defence minister Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh as saying.

"Millions of hectares of forest have been destroyed and the ecosystem is yet to recover. Millions of people exposed [to the chemical] have become victims of dioxin/Agent Orange.

"Together with Bien Hoa and Phu Cat airports, the Da Nang Airport was used as a place to store, handle and disperse the herbicide in the war, and these have become dioxin infection hot spots. In the following years, the toxic chemical has been spreading, affecting human health and the surrounding ecosystem," he said.

Vinh said his ministry, which has been asked to deal with the problem, has worked hard to surround and limit the spread of dioxin impacts.

"However, there have been difficulties in decontamination, evaluating the exact scale of known areas and locating unidentified contamination areas."

"The project being carried out reflects the determination of Vietnamese government and US government, the responsibility of Vietnamese defense ministry and the US Embassy in Vietnam as well as support from the Vietnamese Air Force and Air Defense Services and the USAID in solving post-war issues related to toxic chemicals," he told the paper.

U.S. Ambassador David Shear said: "We are both moving earth and taking the first steps to bury the legacies of our past. I look forward to even more successes to follow.

"Over the next few years, workers will dig up the contaminated soil and sediment and place it in a stockpile, where it will be treated"¦to break down the dioxin in the contaminated soil and make it safe by Vietnamese and U.S. standards for the many men, women, and children who live and work in this area."

The governments of Vietnam and the United States have been collaborating on issues related to Agent Orange since 2000 and USAID has worked closely with Vietnamese authorities to develop the project in Da Nang since 2009, USAID said in a press release.

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.

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 that ended in April 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.

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