HANOI — The United States and Vietnam’s defense ministry have launched the first cleanup operation to rid a former air base of a toxic dioxin left from the Vietnam war. Although many people have welcomed the move, some say it is too little, too late to help generations of people suffering birth defects and diseases linked to the chemical.
The project, which started Thursday, aims to clean up soil and sediment contaminated with dangerous levels of toxin dioxin at a former U.S. Army air base in central Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, Da Nang airport was used to store the herbicide "Agent Orange" which was sprayed on vegetation used as cover by guerrilla forces.
The toxin, which has been linked to disease and birth defects, has remained a dark reminder of the war. U.S. Ambassador David Shear spoke at the opening ceremony in Da Nang.
"The dioxin in the ground here is a legacy of the painful past we share, but the project we undertake here today hand in hand with the Vietnamese is, as Secretary Clinton said, a sign of the hopeful future we are building together," he stated.
Da Nang is the most toxic of 28 dioxin “hot spots” in Vietnam. The $43 million project will excavate and clean up 73,000 cubic meters of soil and sediment around the airport. The U.S. embassy said the soil should be safe for use by 2016.
"This process uses high temperatures to break down the dioxin in the contaminated soil and make it safe by Vietnamese and U.S. standards for the many men, women and children who live and work in this area," said Shear.
Some have hailed the project as a historic turning point for both governments after years of wrangling over the issue.
The defoliant killed off millions of acres of vegetation and has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, cancer and birth defects. However, Washington has not admitted liability for health problems caused by the chemical.
Over the last 13 years, the U.S. has provided $54 million to help disabled people in Vietnam, but not specifically to problems linked to Agent Orange.
Mai The Chinh, head of the information board for the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, known as VAVA, says he thinks Washington has not done enough.
He says it has taken too long for the U.S. to clean up the area and they have not given any money to support health care for dioxin victims.
He says at least three million people have birth defects because of Agent Orange, including at least 300,000 children.
Several orphanages across the country make a special point of taking in children believed to be affected by Agent Orange.
Images abound of babies at these centers with deformed heads looking through the bars of their cots and toddlers with twisted limbs being fed rice gruel.
Thanh Xuan Peace Village, just outside Hanoi, houses hundreds of these children. Director Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuong, says funding is difficult, especially during times of economic crisis.
She says the life of children affected by Agent Orange is more difficult than most, so they are in desperate need of support.
She says she thinks the United States has not done enough to help rid Vietnam of dioxin contamination because the poison continues to affect people three generations after the war ended and there are other hotspots in the country besides Da Nang.
However, she says the center has received help from some unlikely sources. Some American veterans have returned to Vietnam to support the Peace Village and made generous donations. Some were themselves exposed to the herbicide and their own children have been born with deformities.
The U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin estimates $450 million is needed to completely eliminate dioxin “hot spots” and provide care, education and economic opportunities to those affected. It may be nearly 40 years since the end of the conflict. Some observers say the cleanup project in Da Nang is a small but crucial step in helping heal the scars of war.