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14:59 7 August 2015

OPINION: Defoliants: the legacy of Vietnam War on Okinawa

By Jon Mitchell
TOKYO, Aug. 7, Kyodo

On 10 August 1961, defoliants were deployed for the first time in the Vietnam War. During the following decade, the U.S. military sprayed more than 76 million liters over Southeast Asia in an attempt to eradicate their enemies' jungle hiding places and destroy their food crops.

At the time, Washington claimed these defoliants were harmless to humans -- but actually they contained the poison dioxin. Today millions of Vietnamese still suffer from defoliant exposure and some of the former U.S. bases in Vietnam where these chemicals were stored remain dangerously polluted.

During the Vietnam War, Okinawa served as America's key supply hub for the conflict but only recently has the island's role in the Pentagon's defoliation campaign come to light.

According to military records, 25,000 barrels of Agent Orange -- the most common defoliant -- were stored on the island prior to 1972. Hundreds of U.S. service members claim they sprayed Agent Orange on Okinawa's bases to keep the runways and fences clear of jungle. Today these veterans are sick with illnesses they believe are related to dioxin exposure -- and in many cases, their children are ill too.

In 2013, Okinawan construction workers unearthed dozens of rusted barrels from land once part of Kadena Air Base. Many of the barrels were stamped with the name of a leading defoliant manufacturer and contained traces of defoliants' key ingredients.

The excavation work is still ongoing; the number of barrels discovered has reached 118 and, this June, standing water at the site was found to contain dioxin levels many thousand-fold higher than environmental standards.

Despite this mass of evidence pointing to the presence of defoliants on Okinawa, the Pentagon maintains they were never on the island -- and the Japanese government has accepted their denial without question.

Such deference towards U.S. military contamination is nothing new. The Status of Forces Agreement, for example, relieves the U.S. military of all responsibility to clean up environmental contamination caused by its bases -- placing the full financial burden on Japanese taxpayers.

Dioxin is not the only problem. In recent years, former U.S. military land has disgorged a toxic cocktail of substances including arsenic, lead and PCBs. Such discoveries of contamination are likely to rise in the coming years as more military land is returned -- including parts of Camp Kinser in Urasoe city, the Pentagon's most important Vietnam War supply base.

Many Okinawan residents hold high hopes that redevelopment of such land will provide a much-needed boost to the prefecture's economy. But without revisions to SOFA that create a fair framework for remediation, the benefits of such redevelopment may be delayed for many years and the specter of the Vietnam War will continue to haunt local residents, U.S. service members and their families living on contaminated land.

 

(Jon Mitchell is a Welsh journalist writing about human rights issues on Okinawa.)

==Kyodo

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