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Will U.S. stay committed to toxic Agent Orange cleanup in Vietnam?

Vietnam's Da Nang International Airport was less than a year ago one of the most toxic Agent Orange sites in the world. In advance of President Trump's arrival for the APEC Summit, the USAID marked the completion of the first and only American reclamation of a major Dioxin contamination site in that country. What is the American obligation Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the president was at a summit in Vietnam today in the city of Da Nang. That was the site of a huge American air base during the Vietnam War, from which flights carrying Agent Orange flew. Cleaning up the toxic legacy that was left behind there, and at other sites by the U.S., is an ongoing process and a moral reckoning. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The new arrivals area at the Da Nang International Airport sits on what was, less than a year ago, one of the most toxic Agent Orange sites in the world.

    The controversial Agent Orange herbicide was extensively used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War. It was stored here at Da Nang and two other former American bases.

    According to Defense Department records, it contaminated the surrounding wetlands with dioxin, a dangerous chemical believed to cause abnormally high incidents of birth defects in Vietnam.

    Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius:

  • Ted Osius:

    If you're honest about the past, you can have a very different kind of future than if you try to whitewash the past. And we have had some real success in Da Nang in cleaning up the dioxin that was left, especially near the Da Nang Airport.

  • Mike Cerre:

    In advance of President Trump's arrival in Da Nang for the APEC summit this week, the U.S. marked the completion stage of the first and only American reclamation of a major dioxin-contaminated site in Vietnam, at Da Nang International Airport.

    It's taken nearly three years and almost nearly $110 million. It included building this football field-size oven that baked about 160,000 tons of contaminated dirt at more than 600 degrees for three weeks at a time to remove one of the most dangerous toxins ever created by humans.

  • Charles Bailey:

    Da Nang was very toxic. It was 300 times the maximum permitted level for dioxin in the environment.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Charles Bailey has been researching and raising funds for Agent Orange problems in Vietnam since the 1990s. His new book chronicles the Agent Orange legacy and the long path to the U.S. cleanup efforts, starting with President George W. Bush's first official acknowledgement of the problem in 2006 at a previous APEC summit.

    During last year's state visit to Vietnam, President Obama pledged continued American support.

  • Charles Bailey:

    I would say it was almost a textbook example of nonpartisan or bipartisan cooperation. This appropriation has been approved overwhelmingly by both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and in the House.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Now the Vietnamese government wants the United States to clean up another base near Saigon, Bien Hoa, which is five times as large and could cost close to a half-a-billion dollars to clean up.

  • Charles Bailey:

    : It's going to be a lot more difficult to clean up Bien Hoa because the dioxin is dispersed over larger areas. The loading and storage areas were changed over the course of a decade to different parts of the air base.

    Also, the air base is on higher ground, so, whenever it rains, dioxin-tainted soil runs off into the surrounding city.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The former base has severely contaminated nearby lakes, which the locals depend on for their fish.

    Despite public education programs, the contaminated fish are still a staple of the local diet and new generations are suffering from debilitating muscular and neurological problems believed to be caused by Agent Orange dioxin.

  • Charles Bailey:

    The U.S. doesn't have any strictly legal responsibility to clean up the dioxin in Vietnam, but many people feel that we have a moral responsibility.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Senator Patrick Leahy and the Senate's Appropriations Committee have maintained annual funding for Agent Orange cleanup and victims assistance programs since 2007, but they will need additional funding from the Pentagon and the White House to take on the Bien Hoa project.

    The Vietnamese hosts of this year's APEC summit will be listening and watching President Trump closely for clear signs of a continuing U.S. commitment to clean up the toxic mess left behind from what the Vietnamese call the American war.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Mike Cerre, Da Nang, Vietnam.

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