BANGKOK, Thailand -- A $49 million U.S. government effort begins on Thursday (August 9) to cleanse deadly Agent Orange herbicide from a former air base in Danang, central Vietnam, where Americans stored, loaded and washed chemical weapons while spraying the country during the Vietnam War.

"I am going to Danang for a historic opportunity," said Charles R. Bailey, director of the Washington-based Aspen Institute's Agent Orange in Vietnam Program.

"It's a ground-breaking, between the governments of the U.S. and Vietnam, for a project which will clean up all the dioxin at the [Danang] airport remaining from the use of Agent Orange," Mr. Bailey said in an interview on July 31 during a Bangkok stopover.

He will attend Thursday's launch in Danang of the project headed by Vietnam's Defense Ministry and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

"At Danang, there are some 70,000 cubic meters (2,472,027 cubic feet) of contaminated soil that, over the next three years, will be cleaned up," Mr. Bailey said.

That amount of dirt is almost twice the size of the Washington Monument, he said.

"This is the first of several major hot-spots."

Americans, Vietnamese and others are believed to have suffered deformities, diseases or death from dioxin and other herbicides, which the Pentagon used to clear jungles so Vietnamese could then be shot, bombed, or deprived of crops and territory.

From 2007 to 2012, the U.S. Congress appropriated $48.7 million -- including $20 million in 2012 -- to decontaminate topsoil, lakes and silt at former U.S. bases in Vietnam.

An additional $13.7 million came from the Ford Foundation and other private organizations, plus the United Nations, Vietnam and other countries.

Danang will cost at least $43 million to clean. The full list of sites requires an additional $107 million, he said.

Danang, America's biggest air base during the war, is one of the worst cases.

Agent Orange was stored there in steel barrels, loaded onto warplanes, and washed out of the returning planes' spray tanks.

USAID awarded the clean-up contract to Massachusetts-based TerraTherm Inc., he said.

Agent Orange also splashed London's Olympic Games.

"The Dow Chemical Company is one of the major producers of the Agent Orange, which has been used by the U.S. Army," wrote Hoang Tuan Anh, Vietnam's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on May 2.

"Eighty million liters (21 million gallons) were sprayed over villages in the south of Vietnam over 10 years, from 1961 to 1971, destroying the environment, claiming the lives of millions of Vietnamese people -- and leaving terrible effects on millions of others who are now suffering from incurable diseases -- and some hundreds of thousands of children of the fourth generation were born with severe congenital deformities," he wrote.

"We think that the acceptance of IOC for Dow sponsorship was a hasty decision," the minister said.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Vietnamese to hold Dow Chemical and Monsanto liable for birth defects allegedly linked to Agent Orange.

The U.S. Veterans Administration paid billions of dollars to Americans involved in the Vietnam War who later suffered illnesses suspected of being caused by dioxin.

In 1994, retired U.S. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. said in an interview he ordered millions of gallons of Agent Orange to be sprayed in Vietnam and would do so again, even though he later believed the dioxin caused his son to die from cancer.

Mr. Zumwalt's son was a patrol boat commander in the Mekong River delta near Saigon when Agent Orange was being sprayed in the area.

"At the time we didn't know it was carcinogenic. The chemical companies that made it knew. But they told the Pentagon it was not," Mr. Zumwalt said.

"Even knowing it was carcinogenic, I would use it again. We took 58,000 dead. My hunch is it would have been double that if we did not" spray, Mr. Zumwalt said referring to the war's toll on Americans.

Today, Vietnam's hospitals and museums display jars stuffed with large fetuses which show birth defects such as two heads, limbs sticking out of torsos, and other genetic mutations.

Hanoi's communist regime, and some U.S. scientists, blame Agent Orange.

"The Vietnam Red Cross has said about 4.5 million [Vietnamese] people were affected, including 150,000 children," but estimates vary, Mr. Bailey said.

The U.S. sprayed land where an estimated five million Vietnamese lived, and also poisoned Laos along its border with Vietnam, and around U.S. bases in the Philippines and Thailand.

The war ended in 1975 when the U.S. and its collaborators in South Vietnam lost, allowing North Vietnam to reunite the Southeast Asian nation.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946 Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

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(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)