Washington – Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese panel endorsed a 10-year, 300-million-dollar “plan of action” to deal with the deadly health and environmental legacy of the U.S. military’s widespread use of “Agent Orange” during the conflict.
The U.S. government, according to the panel, should provide most of the assistance, which would be designed both to clean up more than two dozen sites in southern Vietnam where contamination was particularly severe and to expand health and related care to people affected by Agent Orange and other dioxin-based herbicides.
“We are talking about something that is a major legacy of the Vietnam War and a major irritant in this important relationship,” said Walter Isaacson, co-chair of the binational group and president of the Aspen Institute, which released the plan of action.
“The cleanup of our mess from the Vietnam War will be far less costly than the Gulf oil spill that BP will have to clean up (in the Gulf of Mexico),” he added.
The plan, the result of three years of consultations by the Aspen-sponsored and Ford Foundation-funded U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, comes at a key moment in the rapprochement between Washington and Hanoi, which established full diplomatic relations only in 1995.
Bilateral trade has grown steadily since even before that date, reaching more than 15 billion dollars last year.
The two former enemies have also steadily improved their military ties. For the first time since the war, a U.S. Navy supply ship underwent extensive repairs at Cam Ranh Bay, which once served as Washington’s most important deep-water port in what was then South Vietnam, and Pentagon officials have made little secret of their wish for a comprehensive agreement that would ensure regular access to it.
But, as noted by Isaacson, the legacy of Agent Orange – and Washington’s failure to provide substantial assistance to Hanoi in dealing with it – has long been a sore point in bilateral ties, particularly as Washington has been reluctant to assume responsibility.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ended a five-year court battle by refusing to hear an appeal by Vietnamese plaintiffs from judgements by lower courts that the main producers of the chemicals, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, could not be held liable for birth defects allegedly caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
“Questions of responsibility, awareness and data reliability have for too long generated bitter controversy and stalled research and remedial action,” the group, which includes private citizens, scientists and policy-makers from both countries, said in its report. “The time to hesitate is past.”
Between 1962 and 1971, when Washington halted their use, the U.S. military sprayed nearly 76 million litres of Agent Orange and related herbicides across South Vietnam and in border areas of Cambodia and Laos as part of an effort to deny Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese troops dense jungle cover and food.
These herbicides destroyed a total of about two million hectares of forest – roughly the same area as El Salvador – and another 200,000 hectares of farmland, according to a report released with the plan of action. Moreover, Agent Orange and related dioxins were sprayed at up to 50 times the concentration recommended by the manufacturers for killing plants.
Nearly five million Vietnamese living in those areas, as well as some 2.8 million U.S. military personnel deployed there during the war, may have been exposed to the chemicals which have been linked by the U.S. Institute of Medicine to various cancers, diabetes, nerve and heart disease, and birth defects.
In addition, as a persistent organic pollutant (POP), dioxin is very slow to degrade in the environment so that its toxic effects can literally last generations.
According to the Red Cross, an estimated three million Vietnamese have suffered adverse health effects from exposure to Agent Orange and related herbicides, including some 150,000 children born with serious birth defects, such as spina bifida.
While U.S. researchers have been studying the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin in Vietnam for some 25 years, the two countries convened their first official scientific conference on the subject only in 2002.
Since 2007, the U.S. Congress has appropriated nine million dollars for “environmental remediation of dioxin- contaminated sites and related health activities in Vietnam” of which a little over four million dollars has been spent.
Congress is currently considering an additional 12 million dollars in assistance for fiscal year 2011.
By contrast, the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) last year alone paid out nearly two billion dollars to Vietnam veterans whose current ailments are believed to be tied to exposure to dioxins.
Most U.S. aid to deal with the Agent Orange problem has come from private sources. The Ford Foundation, the bi-national group’s primary funder, has provided nearly 12 million dollars in grants for environmental restoration and treatment of Vietnamese victims, as well as for efforts to educate the U.S. public about the issue.
The plan of action calls for spending 100 million dollars on cleaning up specific dioxin “hot spots” around southern Vietnam where soil and lakes are most contaminated and 200 million dollars for expanding health and related services for individuals with disabilities resulting from exposure.
The most serious contamination is found in airports and former U.S. military bases where the dioxins were off- loaded, handled, and stored.
Soil tests conducted in 2007 by a Canadian firm in and around Da Nang’s airport, which served as Washington’s largest air base during the war, found that dioxin levels there were 300 to 400 times higher than international limits.
Breast milk and blood samples from people who previously lived near the airport, which is now a major tourist destination, found the highest dioxin levels ever recorded in Vietnam, more than 100 times international limits, according to the report.
Asked about the report’s recommendations, State Department spokeseman P.J. Crowley praised the group’s work, adding, “We have great interest in (its) strategic plan and will look forward to reviewing the details.”
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
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