US defense chief tours contaminated Vietnam War-era Agenelectronic twitcht Orange site

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US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (L) and Vietnam"s Defence Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich leave a meeting room in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam Oct 17, 2018. [Photo/VCG]

BIEN HOA, Vietnam - US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis toured a former Agent Orange storage site in southern Vietnam on Wednesday, revisiting one of the war"s darkest chapters that lives on among a million Vietnamese with severe birth defects, cancers and disabilities linked to the toxic defoliant.

Standing near a weedy field contaminated with dioxin, Mattis surveyed a map of the Bien Hoa airport outside Ho Chi Minh City, one of the main staging grounds for Agent Orange that was hastily cleared by soldiers near the war"s end more than four decades ago.

US forces sprayed 80 million liters of Agent Orange over South Vietnam during 1962-71 in a desperate bid to flush out Viet Cong guerrillas by depriving them of tree cover and food.

At Bien Hoa, the spillover from the clearing operation is believed to have seeped beyond the base and into the ground water, rivers and the local food chain and is linked to severe mental and physical disabilities across generations of Vietnamese - from enlarged heads to deformed limbs.

Under a 10-year remediation effort led by development agency USAID, work is set to start next year on cleaning up Bien Hoa, one of the largest dioxin "hotspots" remaining in Vietnam.

"We hope to have shovels in the ground next year sometime," said a USAID official who was not authorised to be quoted by name.

Vast amounts of Agent Orange had been stored at Bien Hoa in large fuel containers during the war, and under a 1972 operation called Pacer Ivy the US military began pulling the chemical from Vietnam for storage and disposal outside the country.

"In that operation of repackaging, there was a lot of spillage obviously and so that is what we are faced with," the official said.

"Keeping our promise"

The pledge to clean up the site came under the administration of former US president Barack Obama, and will cost some $390 million, officials said.

Hanoi says up to 3 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, and that one million suffer grave health repercussions today, including at least 150,000 children with birth defects.

An attempt by Vietnamese victims to obtain compensation from the United States had little success, and the US Supreme Court in 2009 declined to take up the case while neither the US government nor the chemical manufacturers have ever admitted liability.

Mattis said visiting the site was part of a US commitment to make amends for parts of the bloody and bitter war that killed an estimated three million Vietnamese.

"We had promised to help, ... so this is America keeping her promise to remediate some of the past," Mattis, whose older brother served in Vietnam during the war, told reporters this week.

"I just want to get eyes on (the site) so when I go back and I talk to Congress, I can tell them my impression with actually having seen the site," Mattis said ahead of the trip.

He spent only a few minutes at the site meeting with Vietnam military officials near a "hazardous material" warning sign.


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