Though having long equivocated on Agent Orange’s environmental and human health impacts, the U.S. is now cooperating with Vietnam on Dioxin contamination cleanup efforts.
A Brief History of U.S.-Vietnam Bilateralism
The U.S. and Vietnam finally were able to break through their impasse in 2006 when President George W. Bush visited Vietnam. In a joint statement with Prime Minister Nguyen Minh Triet both countries agreed to “further joint efforts to address the environmental contamination near former Dioxin storage sites would make a valuable contribution to the continued development of their bilateral relationship.” While not addressing the issue of disabilities related to Agent Orange, the statement publicly acknowledged for the first time that Dioxin contamination was a bilateral issue of concern. This opened the door for the U.S. Congress to start allocating funds to address Agent Orange’s impacts in Vietnam. The first allocation came in May 2007, when $3 million was allocated for the “remediation of Dioxin contaminated sites in Vietnam, and to support health programs in communities near those sites.”
Over the years, U.S. aid has increased to support the cleanup efforts of designated hotspots contaminated with Dioxin. This financial commitment has also gone toward programs assisting Vietnamese with disabilities who lived in the heavily sprayed regions or near known Dioxin hotspots.
In the early 2000s, the Vietnamese government prioritized the Da Nang, Phu Cat and Bien Hoa bases for Dioxin remediation. An estimated total of $58.7 million—$250 per cubic meter of soil and sediment—was needed for this operation, according to the Global Environmental Facility of the United Nations Development Program. This estimate turned out to be low as more information about the extent of the contamination and remediation costs were discovered.
The Ford Foundation, followed by the EPA, was the first to get involved in resolving the issue of Dioxin contamination at the Da Nang base. Ford funded the installation of a cement cap and sedimentation tank that would prevent the Dioxin-laden sediment from leaching into Sen Lake in the northern end of the airport and further contaminating the site. In addition, a high wall was built around the base to keep people from fishing or gathering lotus from the contaminated lake and to contain Dioxin accumulation in the food chain.
Bien Hoa Airbase
In April 2019, then-U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and eight other U.S. Senators officially inaugurated the joint U.S.-Vietnam project to clean up the Bien Hoa Airbase. Bien Hoa was a major site of the U.S. Air Force’s Operation Ranch Hand. Over four million gallons of Agent Orange—as well as Agents Purple, Pink, Green, the more heavily Dioxin-contaminated tactical herbicides, and Agents White, and Blue—were stored there.
An Environmental Impact Study found vast areas of the base were heavily contaminated with Dioxin, approximately 500,000 cubic meters of soil and sediment. The USAID and the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense signed a five-year, non-refundable $183 million aid agreement for this work at Bien Hoa. The U.S. has committed $30 million a year over the next 10 years for the remediation work at Bien Hoa. Since 2019 $15 million a year to support the remediation of Bien Hoa Air Base has been allocated out of the U.S. Department of Defense budget.
In 2020, the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense began the process of remediating 35,000 cubic meters of contaminated soils at the former A So U.S. Special Forces base in A Luoi, Thua Thien Hue Province near the Lao border. The two-year project is expected to cost about $3 million.
In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a contract to CDM Smith, a U.S. engineering and construction firm, to work with Hatfield Consultants to determine the extent of contamination at the Da Nang base, with the goal of developing a cleanup plan. About a year later in June, USAID released the Environmental Assessment of the Da Nang base. It was determined that in-pile thermal desorption (IPTD) was the safest and most cost effective, and efficient method of lowering the Dioxin-contaminated soil to less than 1,000 ppt and the sediment to less than 150 ppt.
The U.S. committed to funding the cleanup of the Dioxin contamination at the Da Nang site and in 2011 USAID contracted the U.S.-based company TerraTherm to implement the IPTD process. The process took seven years and entailed building a 70-meter wide by approximately 100-meter long facility to hold the contaminated soil. Over 1,200 heating units were inserted into the soil in order to raise its temperature to 335 degrees Celsius, which broke down the Dioxin molecules into harmless particles. In November 2018, the process of treating 90,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil and remediating the airbase was completed at a total of $116 million.
The Vietnamese Military, working with the United Nations Development Program-Global Environmental Facility, removed 7,500 cubic meters of contaminated sediment and soils at the Phu Cat air base and placed it in a secure landfill in 2012. The $5 million project also built a hydraulic barrier at the Pace Ivy area of the Bien Hoa air base to reduce the further contamination during the rainy seasons.
Continued Efforts and Other Hotspots
Little is known about the level of Dioxin contamination at the other two dozen designated hotspots throughout southern Vietnam. Additional funding is needed to conduct testing at these other hotspots, some of which are active military bases, to develop and implement plans as required. The Vietnamese government now is equipped with the sufficient resources to do necessary testing and conduct needed mitigation measures, and hopes to complete all hotspot cleanup projects by 2030.
In addition to former military bases in Vietnam, there are other hotspots throughout the world where herbicides used in Operation Ranch Hand were stored, used, and tested. Potential hotspots have been found at the former bases used by the U.S. in Thailand, for instance. There was a downed spray plane in Laos believed to have carried a full load of Agent Orange; but information about the tactical use of herbicides in Laos and whether herbicides were stored there is still classified. Allegedly, an Air America aircraft led a small spraying effort in 1968 in central Laos based out of the CIA Base in Long Tieng.
Many of the hotspots in the U.S. where Agent Orange was manufactured, used, or stored are now designated Superfund sites. Some of these locations include: Newark Bay; the Saginaw area in Michigan; Gulfport, Mississippi; Nitro, West Virginia; and Times Beach, Missouri.
Many major cleanup efforts have yet to be done, and there are currently numerous active lawsuits against the U.S. government and chemical companies contracted by the military.
Read more to learn about past, present, and future remediation efforts—implementing both public health and social measures to deliver services and provide financial assistance—to contain the long-term impacts of Agent Orange-Dioxin on people.
Public Health and Social Measures
The U.S. began providing support to Vietnam for people with disabilities in 1989 as part of the Leahy War Victims Fund. But this early support was limited to victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO). In 2006, a breakthrough finally arrived with President George W. Bush’s visit to Vietnam.