Cleaning up the dioxin-contaminated land

March 22, 2023 | 03:33 pm PT
Samantha Power USAID Administrator
It’s difficult, looking at the serene park that now welcomes you to Bien Hoa Air Base, to imagine it half a century ago: the constant roar of the war planes overhead, the lines of hangars and barracks stretching for miles, next to mounds of metal barrels with an orange stripe around their side, Agent Orange.

The writings soldiers left behind from that period paint a harrowing picture of what life was like. Decades ago, a Vietnamese and an American writer worked together to compile a book called "Poems from Captured Documents." They combed through old journals captured during the war. And in these standard-issue notebooks, scrawled alongside letters, medical records, and technical instructions, they found troves of poems.

In the poems, soldiers write of missing home, longing for the "rose pink sunlight" over their villages, the red tiled roofs of their houses, the "almond trees overshadowing the banyans."

And they also write of loss. One soldier tells of a friend and fellow soldier who has gone missing. He describes long nights, crying for his lost friend. In his desperation, he asks:

How can one find one's way to the future?

In the face of such enormous suffering, he felt it was impossible to move forward.

For many years, the United States and Vietnam did not move forward; we did not heal. Our two governments did not speak with one another about past pains, did not attend to the wounds that were still open.

Until, slowly, unevenly, things began to change.

Led by courageous leaders like late Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, Former Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam, Ambassador Le Van Bang, and U.S. Senators John McCain, John Kerry, and Patrick Leahy, we began confronting this difficult past, finding a path forward together.

Vietnam helped the United States locate hundreds of our missing soldiers.

The United States began partnering with Vietnam to remove landmines and unexploded bombs, and providing support to people suffering from disabilities caused by the war.

A friendship began between our peoples. Foreign exchange students started traveling back and forth. Presidents and prime ministers began making official visits. Our economies opened to one another, our cultural exchanges increased, and our partnership grew. This year, in fact, marks the 10-year anniversary of our comprehensive partnership, a partnership we are certain to strengthen.

But for years, a big point of contention remained: the dioxin that still contaminated the ground itself, passing on the pain of the war to new generations of Vietnamese people.

It took us far too long to find a path to repairing this damage, in part because the problem seemed impossibly large.

But then, Vietnamese and Canadian scientists, supported by the Ford Foundation, worked together to show us, quite literally, where to start, identifying the dioxin contaminated spots that remained across the country.

Then, an American small business named TerraTherm developed a technology to remediate the soil, by heating it in a two-story high oven the size of a football field.

We used this technology to successfully clean up the Da Nang Airport in 2018. That project required treating enough dirt to fill 36 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and the Bien Hoa remediation will treat over three times that amount when complete.

Experts collect soil samples from Bien Hoa Airport in southern Vietnam for a project to clean up dioxin contamination at the airport. Photo by USAID

Experts collect soil samples from Bien Hoa Airport in southern Vietnam for a project to clean up dioxin contamination at the airport. Photo by USAID

To clean up Bien Hoa, we are working in close collaboration with our partners in Vietnam. The Ministry of National Defense has done essential work, checking and clearing the contaminated areas of unexploded ordnance and analyzing the soil for dioxin to confirm when the area is clean.

And the Vietnamese businesses we have invested in to help us carry out this work have been remarkable partners as well. When Covid-19 hit, the workers from two of our partners committed to live, work, and eat on the base for three full months to prevent themselves from contracting Covid out in their communities, making an extraordinary sacrifice so they could keep this project moving forward.

Thanks to these heroic efforts, we handed back the first parcel of remediated land, land that is now clean, healthy, and safe.

And I am honored to announce the continuation of this work: a new agreement for up to $73 million to begin the next stage of the project, which will allow us to design, build, and operate a treatment facility to remediate highly contaminated soil and sediment.

We must also acknowledge, however, that even after we destroy all the remaining dioxin at this site, that will not remediate the pain that still persists for so many families, those who have severe disabilities.

The love, compassion, and resilience of these families is extraordinary. But the care they provide should not force them to live in poverty, or keep them from participating in their communities.

So USAID will be doubling our assistance to help care for persons with disabilities, and support those advocating for their rights and inclusion.

And we will continue the Wartime Accounting Initiative, in partnership with our Department of Defense and the government of Vietnam, conducting DNA analysis to identify the remains of missing Vietnamese soldiers and return them to their families.

The soldier who wrote the poem about his missing friend died back in 1970.

But I wish he could have lived to see Bien Hoa today. The gorgeous park. The prosperous city that stretches beyond it. The friendship between our two peoples.

It might seem, to him, a scene too outlandish to be real.

But together, we are finding our way to the future.

Not only healing old wounds, but working to safeguard global health, drive economic growth, and invest in a more sustainable future.

Advancing, together, shared prosperity, deeper friendship, and lasting peace.

*Samantha Power is the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

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