Sunday, March 9, 2014
(Continued from page 1)
Born without arms, Pham Thi Thuy Linh, 10, writes with her foot at Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in a 2004 photo. U.S. aid to help clean up the Agent Orange dioxin contamination and help existing victims has been minimal, but that may be changing.
The most significant event to date occurred last August -- 37 years after the war ended -- when U.S. contractors began a project to remove dioxin from 47 acres of contaminated soil at the Da Nang International Airport, which was one of the largest U.S. bases during the war.
The $84 million effort, which is expected to take until the end of 2016 to complete, has been hailed as an important milestone in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. The airport is one of the most heavily contaminated areas in the world, with dioxin levels measuring more than 365 times the acceptable limits set by the United States and other industrialized countries.
Observers say that while the project represents a long overdue first step, more work needs to be done. More than two dozen other known or potential dioxin "hot spots" have been identified at former U.S. bases. Also left unresolved is the thorny issue of how best to help Vietnamese who've been sickened and disabled because of Agent Orange and dioxin exposure.
U.S. aid for these people so far has amounted to a pittance. According to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, only $11 million of the $61.4 million that Congress has allocated since 2007 -- a year after then-President George W. Bush pledged to help clean up contaminated areas -- has been earmarked for public health programs in Vietnam.
U.S. officials caution that the money is to help people with disabilities "regardless of cause," and isn't specifically for Agent Orange victims. This semantic sleight of hand outrages many American veterans of the war, who say the United States has a moral obligation to help Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, just as sick and dying U.S. veterans have received government help for the last two decades.
"There's a hypocrisy there," says Chuck Searcy, who served in Vietnam as an intelligence analyst during the war and has lived in Hanoi since 1998, heading up a project to clear battlefields of unexploded ordnance, which also continues to kill and maim Vietnamese. "It's a glaring disconnect, and it's embarrassing because the whole world can see it."
U.S. officials have long held, however, that there's no proof that Agent Orange is to blame for the same diseases and birth defects in Vietnam.
"Few independent studies have been conducted in Vietnam to assess possible health effects on the local population," said Chris Hodges, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. "The lack of validated data and scientific review makes it difficult to estimate accurately the number of actual or potentially affected people or the extent of related health effects."
In many ways, the fight for recognition of Vietnam's Agent Orange victims mirrors the 20-year struggle that U.S. veterans endured before Congress granted them compensation in 1991.
Hoping to emulate a case that resulted in a 1984 settlement requiring Dow Chemical, the Monsanto Corp. and other Agent Orange manufacturers to pay $197 million in damages to sick U.S. veterans, a group of Vietnamese victims sued in 2004, only to have the same federal judge dismiss their case a year later, saying the companies were immune because they were following government orders. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2009.
As occurred with U.S. veterans, momentum in Congress appears to be shifting favorably toward the Vietnamese. In 2011, lawmakers directed the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a plan for assisting Vietnam with Agent Orange programs in the coming years. The agency hasn't yet released its proposals.
For its part, Vietnam has put into motion a set of steps that it says will "fundamentally solve" its problems with Agent Orange by 2020. The document, signed in June 2012 by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, outlines preferential treatment for all ailing veterans who fought against the Americans, monthly stipends and health coverage for families with disabled members and special care for pregnant women from contaminated areas.
The Aspen Institute, a Washington-based research center, has called on the United States to spend $450 million over 10 years to clean up Vietnam's dioxin hot spots, restored damaged ecosystems and expand health care for people with disabilities.
It's unclear how much Congress is willing to do. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., introduced a bill last month that would commit the United States to cleaning up all remaining sites and would provide assistance to help Vietnam give better health care and other resources to Agent Orange victims. An identical bill introduced two years ago failed to make it out of committee.
Searcy, the former intelligence analyst who lives in Hanoi, points out that after nearly 40 years, Vietnam's expectations of the United States remain modest.
"The Vietnamese have never demanded that the U.S. do for the Vietnamese what they've done for U.S. veterans," he said. "But the Vietnamese have left the door open to do what's fair."
He added: "I think it's possible to bring some closure to this within the next decade."