The overdue US efforts to sanitise Bien Hoa airport near Ho Chi Minh City follow a similar operation at the giant Danang airbase last year. Bien Hoa was one of the main storage sites for Agent Orange and was only hastily cleared as the retreating US forces abandoned the area at the end of the war.
US forces sprayed 80 million litres of the defoliant over South Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 in an attempt to deprive the Viet Cong insurgents of tree cover and food.
The chemicals are believed to have leached into groundwater and rivers, causing physical disabilities across generations of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian victims, from enlarged heads to deformed limbs.
From the 1960s, Vietnam began to see a sharp rise in birth defects, cancers and other illnesses linked to the chemical.
Neither the US government nor the manufacturers of the dioxin have admitted any liability.
Since 1991 Washington has compensated US veterans exposed to Agent Orange but not the Vietnamese victims.
At the former Bien Hoa storage site, more than 500,000 cubic metres of dioxin had contaminated the soil and sediment, making it the “largest remaining hotspot” in Vietnam, said Washington’s development agency USAid.
There were four times more dioxins at Bien Hoa than at Danang airport, where a six-year, US$110-million cleanup programme was completed in November 2018.
“The fact that two former foes are now partnering on such a complex task is nothing short of historic,” said US ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink, at a launch attended by Vietnamese military chiefs and nine US senators.
Nancy Feldman, whose husband Bob served at Bien Hoa during the war, said he contracted chronic lymphocytic leukaemia in 2002 and lymphoma in 2005. Both cancers were directly linked to Agent Orange exposure, she said. He died in 2006.
Feldman, who worked with the War Legacies Project, said she had visited the rural victims near Bien Hoa, where most families never received medical care or the rehabilitation available only in Vietnam’s cities.
“Having a child with a severe disability in rural Vietnam often means that one parent has to stay home, making farming difficult. Most families we met struggled to survive on less than US$75 per month,” Feldman said.
Burning aircraft in 1965 at Bien Hoa. Picture credit: Wikimedia