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.
The Agent Orange issue has continued to blight the U.S.-Vietnam relationship because dioxin can linger in soils and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations, entering the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. now plan to excavate 73,000 cubic meters (2.5 million cubic feet) of soil from the airport and heat it to a high temperature in storage tanks until the dioxin is removed. The project is expected to be completed in four years.
Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Washington-based Aspen Institute, said Thursday’s start ‘‘marks the coming together of our two countries to achieve a practical solution to dioxin contamination.’’
His organization coordinates the U.S-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, which connects prominent American and Vietnamese scientists, health experts and former officials.
The group in May said that $450 million is needed to clean up dioxin hot spots, provide services to people with disabilities, and repair damaged landscapes across Vietnam over the next five years.
The U.S. is rolling out a $9 million project to address disabilities in Vietnam through 2015, but it continues to dispute Vietnam’s claim that dioxin has caused health problems there. It remains unclear whether the U.S. will clean up all of Vietnam’s dioxin, and how much it will allocate in the long term for people who claim to be Agent Orange victims.
A national action plan that Vietnam’s government released in June lays out goals for dealing with Agent Orange, but does not give a price tag.
Every penny counts for Nguyen Thi Hien, who directs three rehabilitation and vocational training centers for 150 children and young adults with disabilities in Danang on a budget of roughly 100 million dong ($5,000) per month.
The children, busy drawing and making plastic flowers that are sold to raise funds, suffer from a range of physical and mental ailments that Hien says are linked to dioxin.
Vo Duoc, the steel salesman, will travel to the capital, Hanoi, next month to receive treatment for his diabetes. But he says he’s more concerned about what will happen to his six grandchildren, who haven’t yet been tested for dioxin.
‘‘They had nothing to do with the war,’’ Duoc said. ‘‘But I live in fear that they'll test positive like me.’’