Vietnam, US begin Agent Orange cleanup at former wartime air base

By Staff reporters   January 23, 2018 | 07:38 pm PT
Bien Hoa Airport is the largest remaining dioxin hotspot in Vietnam.

Vietnam and the U.S. have kickstarted the process of cleaning up the dioxin around Bien Hoa Airport, a heavily contaminated zone just outside Ho Chi Minh City.

The process formally began on Tuesday with the signing of a Memorandum of Intent between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Military Science Department under Vietnam's Ministry of Defense.

USAID will be working with the Vietnamese ministry to first design a remediation program before implementing it over the next few years.

The signing ceremony for the Memorandum of Intent between the Military Science Department, Vietnam Ministry of National Defense and the USAID on January 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.

The signing ceremony for the Memorandum of Intent between the Military Science Department under Vietnam's Ministry of Defense and USAID on January 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.

“The only way to begin a long journey is to take the first step. The Memorandum of Intent is that first step, and the journey begins today," said U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel J. Kritenbrink, who witnessed the signing together with Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Defense.

"The United States looks forward to working with the Ministry of National Defense on this important initiative, deepening our partnership further, and building a prosperous future for both our countries.”

The campaign to decontaminate Bien Hoa is part of the two countries' cooperation that started in 2000 to resolve humanitarian and wartime legacies while continuing to strengthen their economic, cultural and security ties.

It will also be the second time the U.S. has been directly involved in a dioxin cleanup effort in Vietnam, following USAID and the defense ministry's $110 million campaign that took five years to clean dioxin-contaminated soil at Da Nang International Airport, which started in 2012.

Bien Hoa is the largest remaining dioxin hotspot in Vietnam. Studies have found that more than 500,000 cubic meters of land at the airport, which Vietnam uses for military purposes, needs treating.

Officials from Office 33, the national agency tasked with handling the consequences of toxic chemicals used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, said at a meeting in 2012 that some spots at the airport had the highest levels of dioxin contamination in the world, at 1.18 million parts per trillion (ppt). Dioxin concentration at the air base ranges from 1,000ppt upwards, while 100ppt is considered high.

Vietnam's government first launched a VND270 billion ($11.88 million) program to facilitate a massive dioxin cleanup campaign at the airport last September. The U.S. then announced its commitment to the dioxin remediation efforts at the area in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s state visit to Vietnam in November.

Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange over 78,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of southern Vietnam.

Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical contained in the defoliant, stays in the soil and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food chain through meat, fish and other animals, and has been found at alarmingly high levels in human breast milk.

Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases before the war ended in April 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.

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