Calls To Clean Up Vietnam

U.S. officials turn attention to the deadly legacy of Agent Orange.

An official from the Agent Orange Victims' Association of Da Nang points to the area believed to be contaminated with dioxin at the former U.S. air base, June 23, 2009.

WASHINGTON—Dioxin left by Agent Orange used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War still plagues the Southeast Asian country, and tens of millions of dollars are needed to clean up “hot spots” where concentrations are especially high, U.S. officials say.

High on that list is the airport at Da Nang, Vietnam’s third-largest city, John Wilson, technical support director for USAID’s Asian and Middle East bureaus, told a recent hearing by a House of Representatives subcommittee, noting that the airport is scheduled for a major expansion.

“Given the extent of contamination, the imminent airport construction plans, and the potential threat to the local population, it is important that we act now to remediate the dioxin at Da Nang airport to ensure that airport construction work does not increase exposure to dioxin for area residents and travelers,” Wilson said.

“The airport is located in Da Nang city within a densely populated urban area. It is a busy international airport which the government of Vietnam is expanding to accommodate increased traffic,” Wilson said, adding that “the dioxin hot-spot sites are in the path of the construction and, in some places, within meters of residential areas.”

USAID is finalizing a method of destroying dioxin at very high heat and expects to finish that design within months, he said.

“We estimate that the final phase of this project will cost approximately U.S. $34 million. Subject to funding availability, USAID could begin the work on dioxin remediation as early as spring 2011 and complete the work within two years."

From 1962-71, the U.S. military sprayed roughly 11 million gallons (41 million liters) of Agent Orange across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin is a toxic chemical used in the herbicide that has been linked to cancers, birth defects, and other ailments.

Since 2007, the U.S. Congress has approved $9 million relating to Agent Orange in Vietnam, mostly to address environmental cleanup.

Dioxin degrades slowly—leaching into soil and working its way into the food supply, so that it’s passed on through generations.

Matthew Palmer, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said Washington “recognizes the importance of remediation at hot spots.”

“[These are] the former air bases where dioxin contamination exceeds international safety standards. Building on past containment efforts, we now are collaborating to eliminate the potential for dioxin exposure at the Da Nang airport,” Palmer said.

Millions of dollars needed

Last month, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced a U.S. $5 million cleanup scheme, with money from UNDP and the independent Global Environment Facility and with operations carried out by Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Koos Nessjes, policy adviser at the UNDP in Vietnam, said the U.S. $5 million will be used to test sophisticated technology to destroy dioxin in pilot schemes.

“Without action, the hot spots will continue to contaminate the wider environment and pose a serious health risk to people living and working nearby,” a UNDP statement said.

Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses caused by it, but the United States says no scientific evidence decisively links Agent Orange to the illnesses.

A joint U.S.-Vietnam working group called last month for U.S. $300 million over 10 years to decontaminate sites and provide treatment to Vietnamese with disabilities, including those believed related to dioxin exposure.

The plan asks the U.S. government to help fund a substantial portion of the project. The Agent Orange issue remains the most contentious legacy between Vietnam and the U.S. since the war ended 35 years ago.

The group said nearly U.S. $100 million is needed to restore damaged ecosystems and clean up dioxin-contaminated sites, with priority given to three former U.S. air bases in the central city of Da Nang and the southern locations of Bien Hoa and Phu Cat.

Another U.S. $200 million would go toward expanding care and treatment for Vietnamese with disabilities, including those believed caused by dioxin.

The United States has addressed the issue slowly, saying more data are needed to show that the herbicide sprayed by U.S. aircraft during the war caused health problems and birth defects among Vietnamese.

“We are talking about something that is a major legacy of the Vietnam War, a major irritant in this important relationship,” said Walter Isaacson, co-chair of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin that released the report with backing from the nonprofit Ford Foundation and Aspen Institute.

Original reporting by Gwen Ha for RFA's Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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