More than half a century after the United States began dousing Vietnam with the defoliant Agent Orange in a bid to clear the jungle that provided cover for Viet Cong fighters, it is about to begin cleaning up one of the most contaminated spots left over from the war.
The cleanup is expected to take four years and cost more than $43 million. It is the first time that the U.S. has joined with Vietnam to completely cleanse a site tainted with Agent Orange, which has been linked to birth defects, cancer and other ailments.
"This is huge, considering that for many years the U.S. and Vietnam could not see eye to eye at all about this issue," said Susan Hammond, director of the War Legacies Project, a Vermont-based nonprofit group. "It was one of the last unresolved war legacies between the U.S. and Vietnam."
The problem of Agent Orange had long divided the two nations, which still disagree over the health effects caused by the toxin. The chemical spray contains dioxin, which clings to bits of soil and can be ingested by fish and birds, pulling it into the human food chain. The Red Cross estimates that 3 million Vietnamese have been affected, including at least 150,000 children born with birth defects.
Near the Da Nang site, Vo Duoc fought tears as he told the Associated Press that he and other family members, who have suffered diabetes, breast cancer and miscarriages, had tested high for dioxin. Now he fears his grandchildren could be exposed as well.
"They had nothing to do with the war," Duoc told the AP. "But I live in fear that they'll test positive like me."
The U.S. has chipped in for programs to help Vietnamese youth with disabilities but has shied away from saying their problems are specifically linked to the chemical. Vietnam has bristled at that resistance, pointing out that the U.S. has paid billions of dollars in disability payments to American veterans suffering illnesses linked to Agent Orange.
It wasn't until 2006 that the two countries were able to start progressing toward concrete action, as economic and strategic ties grew firmer. President George W. Bush visited six years ago; growing U.S. engagement with Vietnam to offset the rise of China has bolstered the relationship since.
"Many people in Vietnam had given up hope that anything would ever be done about it," said Charles Bailey, director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program at the Aspen Institute. "Instead, we find that the U.S. is stepping up to the plate."
Da Nang, once used as an American military base, is widely seen as the most worrisome hot spot because it sits in the middle of a densely populated city. Nearby lakes are used to raise fish and ducks for human consumption.
Vietnamese authorities poured a concrete slab over the most badly contaminated area 4 1/2 years ago, with technical assistance from U.S. environmental officials and the Ford Foundation, Bailey said. American aid officials also helped plan for the remaining cleanup to destroy the dioxin in soil and sediment on the site.
"At last we're working towards a solution," said Bailey, who lived a decade in Vietnam and has visited frequently since to work on the issue. He plans to attend the ceremony kicking off the cleanup Thursday. "It's good for the Vietnamese. It's good for the Americans. And it's good to get this behind us."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Dang Cong Kien, 18, rear, and Dang Thi Khanh Mai, 17, center, prepare for a nap at a rehabilitation center in Da Nang, Vietnam. The children were born with physical and mental disabilities that the center's director said were caused by their parents' exposure to Agent Orange. Credit: Maika Elan / Associated Press