- First official clean up step comes four decades after end of conflict
- Millions of gallons of chemical dumped over course of decade to destroy enemy cover
- Comes as Vietnam and the U.S. forge closer ties to boost trade and counter China’s rising influence
PUBLISHED: 06:11 EST, 9 August 2012 | UPDATED: 12:41 EST, 9 August 2012
Work will now begin to remove Dioxin, which has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other disabilities, from the site of a former U.S. air base in Danang in central Vietnam.
The US sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange over the course of a decade.
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The U.S. military dumped 20 million gallons of the dioxin, which has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other disabilities, and other herbicides on about a quarter of former South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, decimating about five million acres of forest, including above.
The war ended on April 30, 1975, when northern Communist forces seized control of Saigon, the U.S.-backed capital of former South Vietnam.
The country was then reunified under a one-party Communist government and Vietnam finally normalized relations with the U.S. in 1995.
But the Agent Orange issue has continued to blight the relationship because the dioxin can linger in soils and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations, entering the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.
It is not water-soluble and only spreads when rainfall and run-off move contaminated mud.
Although the chemical remains at the Danang site, U.S. officials said Thursday that containment measures implemented in recent years temporarily ended the public health threat to the local community.
Vietnam says several million people have been affected by the toxic defoliant, including more than 150,000 children who have since been born with severe birth defects.
The landmark effort has been heralded as a long-overdue step toward removing a thorn in relations between the former enemies.
It comes nearly four decades after the Vietnam War ended.
The $43 million joint project with Vietnam is expected to be completed in four years on the 47-acre contaminated site, located near Danang’s commercial airport and an active Vietnamese military base.
A groundbreaking ceremony took place near the area where a rusty barbed wire fence marks the site’s boundary.
US Ambassador David Shear said: ‘We are both moving earth and taking the first steps to bury the legacies of our past.’
Washington has been slow to respond.
For years officials have demanded more scientific research be carried out to show that the herbicide caused health problems and birth defects among Vietnamese.
Since 2007, it has given about $60 million for environmental restoration and social services in Vietnam, but this is its first direct involvement in cleaning up dioxin, which has seeped into Vietnam’s soil and watersheds for generations.
Shear added the U.S. is planning to evaluate what is needed for remediation at the former Bien Hoa air base in southern Vietnam, another Agent Orange hotspot.
The remediation begins as Vietnam and the U.S. forge closer ties to boost trade and counter China’s rising influence in the disputed South China Sea that’s believed rich in oil and natural resources.
The U.S. says protecting peace and freedom of navigation in the sea is in its national interest.
The Danang site is closed to the public.
Part of it consists of a dry field where U.S. troops once stored and mixed the defoliant before it was loaded onto planes.
The area is ringed by tall grass and a faint chemical smell could be detected during a visit to the area Thursday.
The contaminated area also includes lakes and wetlands dotted with pink lotus flowers where dioxin has seeped into soil and sediment over decades.
A high concrete wall separates it from nearby communities and serves as a barrier to keep residents from fishing in the tainted water.
In 2007, Vietnamese authorities – with technical assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and funding from the nonprofit U.S.-based Ford Foundation – poured a 6-inch (15-cm)concrete slab half the size of a football field over the contaminated area where Agent Orange was mixed.
Dioxin is not water-soluble and only spreads when rainfall and runoff move contaminated mud.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. now plan to excavate 73,000 cubic meters (2.5 million cubic feet) employing technology used to clean superfund sites in the U.S.
Workers will first dig down about 2 meters (6.56 feet). The soil will then be heated to 335 degrees C (635 Fahrenheit) in special containers where the dioxin will break down into oxygen, carbon dioxide and othersubstances that pose no health risks to humans or animals.
Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, Nguyen Chi Vinh, said he hopes to receive more support from the international community and the U.S. government to help remediate dioxin hotspots elsewhere across the country.
The former U.S. air base in southern Phu Cat has already been identified, but he said many dioxin-contaminated areas in Vietnam have not been adequately assessed.
It is still unclear how much the U.S. will help clean up in the long term and how much it will allocate for people who claim to be Agent Orange victims.