Toxic “Rainbow” across the Pacific: New Information Revealed About Agent Orange

Today is the 67th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki.  Rebecca Solnit wrote on Facebook:

In 1995 a woman who survived the bombing of Nagasaki (67 years ago today) came to San Francisco to tell her story. She spoke so slowly I was able to write much of her talk down:

The city was a flat sea in flames
and the dust from the sky
is complete
Sky is black

[. . .]

[man blackened exiting train, frozen in place, inside the train sitting there–of courses all dead, black burned]
It was so hot
Nagasaki is so hot.

But we can’t make it
We are so sick
Infection from nail, spent one night in bamboo then decide to go back to grandmother’s home
The Americans coming so we [young girls] all have to cut hair
but I no cut hair

Every time you comb like this hair comes out
gum start losing teeth start losing
I was so skinny, my grandmother could pick it [me?] up
My cousins started dying one by one
They die
They didn’t have big scar, they die from radiation symptoms
They start vomiting
It is black, black
The plutonium in Nagasaki is different
Whatever comes out is black.

Another horror of war and militarization has lately been on my mind and in the news: Agent Orange.  As Beverly Keever revealed years ago “University vulnerable to pitfalls of secret experiments” (March 27, 2005), Hawaiʻi has the dubious distinction of being one of the places where Agent Orange was developed and tested under the cover of agricultural research.  Two UH researchers who were doused by Agent Orange during field tests later developed cancer  and tried to sue for compensation.  There is also an Agent Orange spill site on Kauaʻi near the Wailua river.

Oshita and Fraticelli marked their bulldozers with flags to serve as targets and stayed there while the planes swooped down to spray the defoliants. “When the plane came to spray, someone had to guide him,” Oshita told a reporter in a Page 1 report in the campus newspaper, Ka Leo O Hawaii, on Feb. 3, 1986. “We were the ones.”

Testing was done without warning UH employees or the nearby Kapaa community even though in 1962, just months before being assassinated, President Kennedy was told that Agent Orange could cause adverse health effects, U.S. court documents show. And a 1968 test report written by four UH agronomists said that on Kauai Agent Orange, alone or combined with Agent Pink, Purple or Blue, was effective and “obviously may also be lethal.”

When the testing finished in 1968, five 55-gallon steel drums and a dozen gallon cans partially filled with the toxic chemicals were buried on a hilltop overlooking a reservoir. There they remained until the mid-1980s when the Ka Leo reporter’s questions led to their being excavated, supposedly for shipment to a licensed hazardous waste facility. They left behind levels of dioxin in some soil samples of more than five times normal cleanup standards.

The barrels were then placed in a Matson shipping container. There, instead of being shipped out of state as promised, they sat for another decade. Then, in 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health discovered that UH had failed to dispose properly of the hazardous materials and included this infraction along with a Big Island one in a $1.8 million fine against the institution. In April 2000, the barrels were finally shipped out of state.

Oshita and Fraticelli have since died. A year after his Agent Orange work, Oshita was diagnosed with liver dysfunction, bladder cancer, diabetes, chronic hepatitis and a severe skin disease called chloracne. Fraticelli died in April 1981 from lung and kidney cancer; he also had bladder cancer and a brain tumor, court documents indicate.

Today, the AP reported that the U.S. is finally planning to address Agent Orange in Vietnam –  “U.S. plan to clean up Agent Orange dioxin ‘better late than never’” (August 9, 2012):

Vo Duoc fights back tears while sharing the news that broke his heart: A few days ago he received test results confirming he and 11 family members have elevated levels of dioxin lingering in their blood.

The family lives in a twostory house near a former U.S. military base in Danang where the defoliant Agent Orange was stored during the Vietnam War, which ended nearly four decades ago. Duoc, 58, sells steel for a living and has diabetes, while his wife battles breast cancer and their daughter has remained childless after suffering repeated miscarriages. For years, Duoc thought the ailments were unrelated, but after seeing the blood tests he now suspects his family unwittingly ingested dioxin from Agent Orange-contaminated fish, vegetables and well water.

Dioxin, a persistent chemical linked to cancer, birth defects and other disabilities, has seeped into Vietnam’s soils and watersheds, creating a lasting war legacy that remains a thorny issue between the former foes. Washington has been slow to respond, but today the United States for the first time will begin cleaning up dioxin from Agent Orange that was stored at the former military base, now part of Danang’s airport.

The article continued:

Over the past five years, Congress has appropriated about $49 million for environmental remediation and about $11 million to help people living with disabilities in Vietnam regardless of cause. Experts have identified three former U.S. air bases – in Danang in central Vietnam and the southern locations of Bien Hoa and Phu Cat – as hotspots where Agent Orange was mixed, stored and loaded onto planes.

The U.S. military dumped some 20 million gallons (75 million liters) of Agent Orange and other herbicides on about a quarter of former South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.

The defoliant decimated about 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of forest – roughly the size of Massachusetts – and another 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of crops.

After years of denying veterans’ medical compensation for Agent Orange contamination, much less the environmental health concerns of Vietnamese people, why the change in tune?  One possible explanation is that the U.S. is seeking closer ties with Vietnam (including negotiating the use of ports for U.S. war ships) in order to counter the growing power of China:

Military ties have also strengthened, with Vietnam looking to the U.S. amid rising tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and is crossed by vital shipping lanes.

Although Washington remains a vocal critic of Vietnam’s human rights record, it also views the country as a key ally in its push to re-engage militarily in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. says maintaining peace and freedom of navigation in the sea is in its national interest.

But, the U.S. has not even acknowledged the use or storage of Agent Orange in Okinawa.  Jon Mitchell reveals in the Japan Times “25,000 barrels of Agent Orange kept on Okinawa, U.S. Army document says” (August 7, 2012). Those barrels were later shipped to Kalama (Johnston Atoll) 800 miles from O’ahu and once a part of the Hawaiian Kingdom:

During the Vietnam War, 25,000 barrels of Agent Orange were stored on Okinawa, according to a recently uncovered U.S. Army report. The barrels, thought to contain over 5.2 million liters of the toxic defoliant, had been brought to Okinawa from Vietnam before apparently being taken to Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. military is known to have incinerated its stocks of Agent Orange in 1977.

The army report is the first time the U.S. military has acknowledged the presence of these chemicals on Okinawa — and it appears to contradict repeated denials from the Pentagon that Agent Orange was ever on the island. The discovery of the report has prompted a group of 10 U.S. veterans, who claim they were sickened by these chemicals on Okinawa, to demand a formal inquiry from the U.S. Senate.

The army report, published in 2003, is titled “An Ecological Assessment of Johnston Atoll.” Outlining the military’s efforts to clean up the tiny island that the U.S. used throughout the Cold War to store and dispose of its stockpiles of biochemical weapons, the report states, “In 1972, the U.S. Air Force brought about 25,000 55-gallon (208 liter) drums of the chemical Herbicide Orange (HO) to Johnston Island that originated from Vietnam and was stored on Okinawa.”

In a companion article “Poisons in the Pacific: Guam, Okinawa and Agent Orange” (August 7, 2012) he describes how the use and storage of Agent Orange on Guam as well as Okinawa has taken a heavy toll on many of the GIs who were exposed to the deadly toxins:

Within days of starting the assignment, Foster developed pustules and boils all over his body that were so severe he bled through his bed linen. Then during the following years he fell ill with a litany of sicknesses, including Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease, that he believes were caused by the highly toxic herbicides he was ordered to spray. Foster also contends that Agent Orange’s dioxins — long proven to damage successive generations’ health — have also affected his daughter, who had to undergo cancer treatment as a teenager, and his grandchild, who was born with 12 fingers, 12 toes and a heart murmur.

News photo

Toxic legacy: U.S. Air Force veteran Leroy Foster holds his granddaughter in a picture taken not long after her birth in 2010. She was born with 12 fingers and toes, as well as a heart murmur — abnormalities that Foster believes are a consequence of his exposure to Agent Orange on Guam in the late 1960s. COURTESY OF LEROY FOSTER

[. . . ]

According to Edward Jackson, a sergeant with the 43rd Transportation Squadron assigned to Guam in the early 1970s, these herbicides were a common sight. “Andersen Air Force Base had a huge stockpile of Agent Orange and other herbicides. There were many, many thousands of drums. I used to make trips with them to the navy base for shipment by sea,” Jackson told The Japan Times.

Knowing what we do now about the toxicity of these chemicals, it is easy to imagine that service members handled them wearing protective clothing. But for years the military and manufacturers suppressed the research on their dangers. “They told us Agent Orange was so safe that you could brush your teeth with it,” says Stanton.

Not only did this lackadaisical attitude apply to the usage of these herbicides, it also applied to their disposal. Just like on Okinawa, where veterans have claimed Agent Orange was buried on Hamby Air Field (current-day Chatan Town), Kadena Air Base and Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, former service members on Guam say they engaged in similar practices.

According to Jackson, the barrels of herbicides were sometimes damaged during transit so they were dumped on Andersen Air Force Base. “I would back my truck up to a small cliff that sloped away towards the Pacific Ocean. I personally threw away about 25 drums. Each individual drum was anywhere from almost empty to almost full,” Jackson explains. 

In the 1990s, the U.S. government cracked down on such methods, and after conducting environmental tests on the site where Jackson dumped the barrels, that area was found to be so severely polluted that it was listed for urgent cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency. Across the tiny island, almost 100 similarly tainted sites were identified, including one where dioxin contamination in the soil of 19,000 parts per million (compared to a recognized safe level of 1,000 parts pertrillion) made it one of the most toxic places on the planet. Further alarming residents was the proximity of many of these sites to the Northern Guam Lens, the aquifer that supplies the island with its drinking water.

How did the military rationalize this kind of environmental practice?

The heavy loss of G.I. blood on both islands imbued in many U.S. leaders a sense of entitlement to the hard-won territories. Following the end of World War II, the islands were gradually transformed into two of the most militarized places on the planet — Guam became the “Tip of the Spear” and Okinawa the “Keystone of the Pacific.”

[. . .]

The fates of Guam and Okinawa have been entwined in the Gordian knot of the planned relocation of thousands of U.S. Marines within the Pacific theater. Associate professor Natividad believes that this plan has made Guam’s leaders reluctant to push the Pentagon for full disclosure about its poisoning of the island. “Our former governor was too afraid of making waves with Washington for fear of jeopardizing the realignment. Our current governor is more confident but even if he pressured Washington for an admission, they’d just send him a letter saying that they’ve cleaned up the contaminated sites.”

While it now seems clear that America’s reasons for bringing Agent Orange to Guam and Okinawa were rooted in the Cold War past, Washington’s increasingly implausible refusals to admit to the presence of these toxic substances on either island are tightly interwoven with its 21st century military strategy for the region.

“We veterans have become a political pawn between the U.S. and Japan,” says Jackson, the former air force sergeant. “We’re an army waiting to die.”

What about the Agent Orange, chemical weapons and nuclear waste on Kalama (Johnston Atoll)?

Ed Rampell wrote “The military’s mess: Johnston Atoll, the army’s ‘model’ chemical disposal facility, is an environmental disaster” (PDF) (January 1996):

According to “Mr. D.,” a defense industry source knowledgeable about JACADS, speaking on condition of anonymity, a nuke “went off the launch pad and cracked … The missile did not go off, but it cracked the casing, releasing plutonium.” The radioactive area, he said, is “still offlimits via a chain link fence.” In what amounts to the world’s first and largest plutonium mining project, the U.S. is spending $10 million to separate contaminated soil at the atomic atoll.

Plutonium is not the only lethal substance to leak into Johnston. In the 1970s, the U.S. shipped to the atoll millions of gallons of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, the birth defect-causing defoliant used in Vietnam. According to Mr. D., “The Agent Orange was stored in 55-gallon drums, which rusted, and the Agent Orange leaked into the soil.” This still-contaminated area is also fenced off. According to Wilkes, the herbicide was finally burned in 1976 on the Vulcanus II incinerator ship, which he calls “notoriously inefficient.” He adds, “Here, to an extreme degree, the U.S. military does anything that is too unpopular, too dangerous and too secret to do elsewhere in the Pacific.”


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