In April 2011, these Community pages published the first accounts of sick U.S. veterans who believe their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa during the Vietnam War era.
Since that initial article, The Japan Times has published a further dozen stories in which retired service members alleged toxic herbicides were stored and sprayed on the island — as well as buried in large volumes on Futenma air station and in what is now a popular tourist area in Chatan Town. Japanese former base workers have corroborated veterans’ accounts and photographs seem to show barrels of these herbicides on Okinawa. U.S. military documents cite the presence of Agent Orange there during the 1960s and ’70s.
Suggestions that these poisonous substances were widely used on their island have worried Okinawa residents, and politicians including Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima have demanded that the U.S. government come clean on the issue.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon revealed that it had concluded its own nine-month investigation into allegations reported by The Japan Times and other newspapers. On Feb. 19 the results of this investigation were announced at a meeting attended by representatives from the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and diplomats from the Embassy of Japan.
Authored by retired air force Col. Alvin Young, the investigation boiled down the allegations into seven points — and then dismissed them one by one.
In response to veterans’ claims that ships had transported Agent Orange via the island on their way to Vietnam, the investigation stated that such vessels were not designed for the delivery of barrels, and nor were there any shipping records that supported veterans’ allegations. The investigation also cited documents — long believed destroyed — which it claimed supported its assertion that Agent Orange had been delivered directly from the U.S. to Vietnam without passing through Okinawa.
Another issue addressed by the investigation was a 2003 U.S. Army report titled “An Ecological Assessment of Johnston Atoll” that stated that 25,000 barrels of Agent Orange had been on Okinawa prior to 1972. The investigation dismissed this by arguing that its authors “were not DoD [Department of Defense] employees, nor were they likely familiar with the issues surrounding Herbicide Orange.” The Pentagon further distanced itself from the 25,000-barrel statement, claiming it was “inaccurate and does not reflect the facts as known to the Army or to the U.S. Government.”
A second U.S. Army report, which cited the presence of a herbicide stockpile at Kadena Air Base in 1971, was also repudiated by the investigation — this time on the basis that a follow-up report, prepared three years later in 1974, “did not identify any stockpiles of Herbicide Orange . . . in Okinawa.”
In conclusion, the investigation stated: “After an extensive search of all known and available records, there were no documents found that validated the allegations that Herbicide Orange was involved in any of these events [the burials at Chatan and Futenma], nor were there records to validate that Herbicide Orange was shipped to or through, unloaded, used or buried on Okinawa.”
Following the release of the full 29-page text of the investigation in March, scientists, veterans and environmental groups disputed the veracity of its contents.
Former U.S. stevedores stationed on Okinawa questioned how the Pentagon had been able to come up with shipping records for Agent Orange when they’d been told such documents had been destroyed long ago. Other veterans argued that the Pentagon’s disowning of the 2003 Army report that cited 25,000 barrels on the island was disingenuous — had it not been thoroughly screened by the Department of Defense in the first place, its publication would never have been permitted. The same veterans also suggested that the reason why the later report failed to mention the Agent Orange stockpile at Kadena was because it had been removed from the island in 1972. That year, the U.S. shipped its herbicide stockpiles from around the world to Johnston Island in the northern Pacific for eventual destruction in 1977.
As well as highlighting the apparent discrepancies in the investigation, many critics also questioned the Pentagon’s choice of author, Alvin Young. They cited previous funding he received from the manufacturers of Agent Orange — Monsanto and the Dow Chemical Co. — and his close ties to the Department of Defense. Mark Wright, a spokesman for the Pentagon, defended Young by stating he is “a world-recognized and published authority on the topic” of Agent Orange.
However, of most concern to experts and veterans was what the investigation failed to do. No bases on Okinawa where Agent Orange had allegedly been stored were visited. The photographic evidence was not addressed and, perhaps most tellingly, none of the eyewitnesses making these claims were interviewed.
“It’s like saying that if there wasn’t a paper trail, then it didn’t happen. The report clearly wanted to emphasize that there was nothing in the files they looked at, but that’s only one type of evidence,” said Richard Clapp, professor emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health.
Singled out for particular criticism by Clapp, who has 30 years’ experience researching Agent Orange, was the investigation’s failure to interview any of the U.S. veterans claiming exposure. In July 2012, for example, 10 former service members wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate volunteering testimony on the issue, but none of them was contacted for the Pentagon investigation.
Kris Roberts, the former maintenance chief at Futenma air station who claimed to have unearthed barrels of Agent Orange on the installation in 1981, thinks he knows the reason why he wasn’t interviewed.
“Being a retired lieutenant colonel with five medals for superior performance gives me a high degree of creditability. There is no doubt in my mind that they decided in advance not to contact me — but there is no excuse whatsoever for this,” said Roberts, who is now a state representative in New Hampshire.
Wright told The Japan Times the Pentagon had not interviewed any veterans because it had wanted to make “best use of government resources.” He also appeared keen to emphasize that the Pentagon was not accusing the dozens of veterans of fabricating their accounts. They “remembered actual events that happened. … However, the source documents showed that, while these events took place, either the material involved was not Herbicide Orange or the location was not Okinawa.”
Herbicide expert Clapp also criticized the investigation’s failure to conduct soil checks. “One of the obvious ways to resolve conflicting — or missing — evidence is to test environmental samples taken now from sites where burial was alleged to have happened. Ideally this should be done by an independent contractor familiar with environmental and wildlife reservoirs of Agent Orange and its dioxin contaminants.”
Although dioxin, the poison found in Agent Orange, is quickly broken down by sunlight, it can remain toxic for decades when buried underground. On former U.S. military storage areas in Vietnam, for example, the soil remains polluted more than 40 years later, and local residents exhibit high levels of contamination and continue to suffer from associated health problems.
Despite a 1973 Japan-U.S. Joint Committee agreement that allows local leaders to request environmental tests on bases located in their communities, the U.S. military and the Japanese government have refused to permit them. For example, in September 2011, demands from Nago City Council for dioxin tests on Marine Corps Camp Schwab — a base believed to have been a storage area for Agent Orange — were turned down.
The investigation’s failure to address potential contamination dismayed Masami Kawamura, director of environmental policy and justice at the Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, an NGO calling for a full inquest into Agent Orange usage on the island.
“Even though the investigation was submitted on an intergovernmental level between Japan and the U.S., it was substandard. Washington wanted to bring closure to the issue of Agent Orange on Okinawa, but what it really showed was that the U.S. government looks down on the government of Japan. It didn’t think that the Japanese government would analyze the report in any detail.”
Kawamura’s suspicions would appear to be correct: Tokyo has not commented on the investigation, either to endorse or question its findings. But it might soon regret such acquiescence. In April, it was announced that over the coming years, some of the U.S. bases at the center of Agent Orange allegations would be returned to civilian control. These installations include Futenma air station and Makiminato Service Area in Urasoe city, where veterans claim the military kept its main stockpile of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
If the Pentagon conducted environmental tests on these installations and the results revealed Agent Orange dioxins, U.S. service members currently stationed there would undoubtedly demand remediation. Washington is particularly sensitive to pollution worries among its troops in the wake of recent revelations regarding drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where as many as 750,000 service members and their families were exposed to harmful substances. In 2012, Congress was forced to pass an act in an attempt to resolve the problem.
However, if the Pentagon can delay environmental tests on its Okinawa bases until the land reverts to civilian control — currently scheduled to occur after 2022 — it will be able to shift the cost of clean-up onto the shoulders of Japanese taxpayers. Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, Washington is absolved of all responsibility to restore military land formerly under its control to safe environmental levels.
So how much would such remediation cost?
In April, a meeting in Naha pegged the price of cleaning up former military land on Okinawa at ¥60 billion — approximately $600 million. However, these estimates were only based upon the presence of pollutants such as mercury and lead. Factoring Agent Orange’s dioxin into calculations, the costs could skyrocket to a price tag potentially approaching $1 billion.
Given these figures — in addition to the compensation exposed veterans would be liable to claim — the Pentagon’s need to continue its denials is perhaps understandable. Herb Worthington, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Agent Orange and Other Toxic Substances Committee, is only too familiar with such a stance. His organization led the campaign to secure assistance for U.S. veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam — a struggle that only bore fruit in 1991, when Washington finally agreed to compensate sick service members.
“Eventually, I am sure that Okinawa will be proven to have used or stored Agent Orange,” he said. “But by the time it is admitted, most of the outspoken veterans will have passed away. The mantra of our government agencies is ‘deny, deny, deny.’ ”
Locations where the Pentagon admits using Agent Orange: Cambodia, Canada, Korea, Laos, Puerto Rico, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam. Places where U.S. veterans and local residents claim Agent Orange was used, but the Pentagon denies the allegations: Guam, Johnston Island, mainland Japan, Okinawa, Panama, the Philippines and Saipan.
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