Vietnam, US launch dioxin cleanup at Bien Hoa airbase

A Vietnamese soldier runs past a Danger site at Bien Hoa Airport in Dong Nai Province. Photo by Reuters

A Vietnamese soldier runs past a “Danger” site at Bien Hoa Airport in Dong Nai Province. Photo by Reuters

An estimated 515,000 cubic meters of soil over 52.24 hectares at the airport in Dong Nai Province, an hour’s drive from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, is contaminated with the deadly chemical.

The cleanup is expected to take at least 10 years and cost $390 million.

The new project aims to clean up 150,000 cubic meters of soil by 2025, using $183 million donated by the U.S. government and VND110 billion ($4.7 million) in counterpart funds from Vietnam.

It begins months after Vietnam and the U.S. announced the successful cleanup of Da Nang Airport, where 140,000 cubic meters of soil over a 32.8 hectare area was isolated and treated with thermal desorption technology.

Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of National Defense, said the larger Bien Hoa project “will encounter many technological, environmental and funding challenges, so persistent and scientific cooperation will be needed.”

Senior U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who led the delegation of senators from both major U.S. parties, said the new project was “more ambitious” than Da Nang, given its size and scale.

Bien Hoa, now serving only military training purposes, was the largest U.S. military base in Vietnam during the war and at one time, was judged the busiest airport in the world.

Vietnamese studies have concluded that the airport has 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.

“The ground beneath and around us is the largest remaining hotspot of contamination in Vietnam. This will be a far larger project than Da Nang, and one of the largest environmental remediation projects in the world,” Leahy said at the project inauguration ceremony.

He said the Bien Hoa project was the culmination of 30 years of humanitarian cooperation between two former enemies, starting with Vietnam helping the U.S. find remains of American soldiers gone missing during the war.

Vietnam and the U.S. have both been trying to overcome the legacies of the war, and for Vietnam, the consequence repeated most often is Agent Orange, he said.

With the Da Nang and Bien Hoa projects, he said, “We are cleaning the contaminated soil and sediment to prevent future harm. And we are helping those who are suffering from what happened to them or to their parents or grandparents.”

Both U.S. and Vietnamese representatives at the ceremony expressed confidence in the outcome of the new project, given that that Da Nang project “worked out every well.”

Leahy, who had also joined Vinh to kickstart the Da Nang cleanup in 2012, said that “Bien Hoa has other challenges … but Vietnamese and U.S. scientists can overcome whatever difficulties ahead.”

Daniel Kritenbrink, U.S. ambassador to Hanoi, said the project “marks the beginning of an historic United States-Vietnam effort to erase a lingering ghost from our past.”

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (L) and Vietnams Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh launch the dioxin cleanup project in Bien Hoa Airport, April 20, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Phuoc Tuan

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (L) and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh launch the dioxin cleanup project in Bien Hoa Airport, April 20, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Phuoc Tuan

Also on Saturday, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of the Standing Board for the National Committee on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences, signed a memorandum of intent to support persons with disabilities in seven Vietnamese provinces – Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, Quang Nam, Binh Dinh in central Vietnam, and Dong Nai, Binh Phuoc, and Tay Ninh in the south.

The memorandum covers a five-year commitment to support programs for people with disabilities in provinces that were heavily affected with Agent Orange, Leahy said.

The schedule for delivering actual assistance and the financial scale of the project have not been revealed. But over the next five years, the agencies are expected to work with the Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health, and Vietnamese authorities and organizations to provide direct care, build the capacity of the rehabilitation sector, and develop community level social services.

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 before the war ended in April 1975. These chemicals have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases.

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