HANOI, Vietnam — The United States will clean a Vietnam War site contaminated with an Agent Orange byproduct for the first time since fighting ended 37 years ago, boosting ties with a former enemy that blames the herbicide for poisoning millions.
U.S.-funded workers begin treating polluted land Thursday at Danang International Airport, a war-era air base that is now a gateway to one of Vietnam’s top tourist draws. The move bolsters a decades-long effort to eradicate dioxin, a chemical derived from Agent Orange that the U.S. government has linked to diseases in war veterans even as it denies legal liability.
“This event marks a significant milestone in the collaboration between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments toward resolving the longstanding legacy of Agent Orange,” said Charles Bailey, a director at the Washington-based Aspen Institute who has worked on dioxin-related problems in Vietnam for more than a decade. “It signals a new era.”
The clean-up underscores U.S. efforts to settle grievances left over from the war as it shifts resources to Asia to counter China’s growing military might. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed Agent Orange in Hanoi last month on a regional trip in which she also pledged to help Laos cope with unexploded bombs and make progress clearing Cambodia’s war-time debt.
Improved U.S.-Vietnam ties “have regional implications in Asia,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “The relationship can’t advance very far without closing the book on these war legacy issues.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in June became the highest- ranking U.S. official to visit a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War, which killed 58,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese. The United States plans to service ships at the port, part of efforts to expand naval exchanges as both countries express concern over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
From 1962 to 1971, U.S. troops sprayed herbicide over about 10,000 square miles in central and south Vietnam, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, to clear jungles and kill crops used by Viet Cong guerrillas, according to the Aspen Institute. While most of the land sprayed is not contaminated, more than two dozen former U.S. military bases may still contain high levels of dioxin that puts locals at risk.
Danang and two other U.S. air bases where Agent Orange was stored, mixed and loaded for spraying missions are considered the most dangerous, with dioxin levels more than 200 times those considered safe. The U.S. has committed about $49 million to dioxin clean-up, and a further $107 million would need to be raised to clear all remaining sites, the U.S. Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin said in a May report.
On hand to witness the clean-up in Danang will be Nguyen Van Dung, who started working at the airport 16 years ago and is one of three million Vietnamese the local Red Cross estimates suffered adverse health effects from Agent Orange. He dug ditches in the contaminated soil and ate ducks and fish from a nearby lake that contains dioxin-laced sediment.
“I didn’t know any better because no one said there was anything wrong with the ground,” he said by phone this week.
A daughter born after Dung began work at the airport died because of bone and blood diseases. His son, who requires blood transfusions every 20 days, is toothless and can’t walk because his bones have developed abnormally. The government recognizes that his son’s illness is because of dioxin exposure, he said.
“I am very happy that they are cleaning it up so that others won’t get sick,” said his wife, Luu Thi Thu, who manages an airport souvenir stand. “Ït’s too late for our family, but there is hope for the next generation.”
Pasadena-based Tetra Tech won a U.S. government contract this year to excavate about 73,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil around the airport, enough to fill about 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The dirt will be heated to break it down into non-toxic compounds.
Agent Orange, named for the color of a band around the 55- gallon drum in which it was delivered, was the most used among 15 herbicides sprayed on Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy’s administration asked companies including Dow Chemical and Monsanto to produce the defoliant.
In 1984, those companies settled a case brought by U.S. war veterans for $180 million, then one of the largest settlements ever. The Department of Veterans Affairs still offers compensation for soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange and may be suffering from more than a dozen illnesses, including lung cancer and heart disease. The government also provides aid for their children who have certain birth defects.
Dow Chemical says on its website that “the very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans’ illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange.” The U.S. has allocated funds to provide care for all disabled people among Vietnam’s 90 million citizens without ascribing any particular case to Agent Orange.
“We do not believe that there is sufficient scientific evidence that would enable us to identify the cause or origin of an individual disability,” Matthew Palmer, a State Department official, told a congressional hearing in 2010.
The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin sued Dow Chemical and more than 30 other companies in 2004. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2009, accepting a federal appeals court ruling in New York a year earlier that dismissed the case on the so-called government contractor defense, which protects companies that make products to government specifications and disclose any known dangers.
The association is pleased with U.S. efforts to clean up Danang and expects them to do more, according to Tran Xuan Thu, the group’s vice president.
“We are very happy to see this taking place,” he said. “It shows the U.S is taking responsibility to solve the problem it created.”