The U.S. Marine Corps buried a massive stockpile of Agent Orange at the Futenma air station in Okinawa, possibly poisoning the base’s former head of maintenance and potentially contaminating nearby residents and the ground beneath the base, The Japan Times recently learned from interviews with U.S. veterans.
The barrels were apparently abandoned in Okinawa at the end of the Vietnam War — when the U.S. government banned the dioxin-laden defoliant for health reasons — and were buried at the installation in the city of Ginowan after the Pentagon ignored requests to safely dispose of them, according to the veterans who served at the installation in the 1970s and 1980s.
Closing down Futenma has been the center of a bitter 16-year struggle by Tokyo and Washington to realign U.S. forces on the island, but these allegations are likely to raise fears that even after its eventual shutdown, the land beneath the base will be too poisoned for civilian use for decades, as is the case with former U.S. installations that stored Agent Orange in the former South Vietnam.
One of the veterans who made the claims of the burial is retired Lt. Col. Kris Roberts, 57, who was in overall charge of maintenance projects at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
In summer 1981, after being notified by ranking officers that monitoring showed “unacceptably high readings” of chemicals in the wastewater flowing off the facility, Roberts said he and his construction crew began digging in an area near the end of the runway.
“We unearthed over 100 barrels buried in rows. They were rusty and leaking and we could see orange markings around some of their middles,” Roberts, now a state representative in New Hampshire, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
The dangers of Agent Orange — which took its name from the color of the stripes around the drums in which it was stored — were still not widely known in the early 1980s. But Roberts said his suspicions were aroused when higher brass declared the construction site off-limits to other personnel, then ordered the barrels secretly loaded onto trucks by Okinawan workers and transported to an unknown location. Soon after the barrels were removed, a typhoon flooded the site of the burial.
“The water had a chemical film on it from the leaking barrels. My men and me climbed down into it and eventually managed to drain the contaminated water off the base,” Roberts said.
Due to his contact with the barrels’ contents, Roberts, a former champion marathon runner, said he fell sick with heart problems, prostate cancer and precursors of lung cancer — diseases that his doctor states are a result of exposure to Agent Orange.
Concerned that his fellow crew members were also poisoned, Roberts has repeatedly urged the U.S. Marine Corps and Department of Veterans Affairs to contact them, but his requests have been ignored, he said.
During the past year, more than 30 U.S. veterans have told The Japan Times about the use of Agent Orange in Okinawa during the Vietnam War, when the island served as a major supply post for the American military. While some of the former service members have spoken about the use of Agent Orange in the period up to the mid-1970s, this is the first time its existence there has been alleged as recently as the 1980s.
The Pentagon denies that the defoliant was ever present in Okinawa, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded compensation to at least three veterans sickened by these chemicals on the island.
Among those to go public is Carlos Garay, a former marine who was in the Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron at Futenma in 1975. Garay claims he saw 12 barrels of Agent Orange that had been left at the installation after the end of the Vietnam War.
“Additionally, other squadrons were directing their leftover stocks to us for disposal, so I sent messages to the Department of Defense and Headquarters of the Marine Corps, but they never replied. The barrels were still there when I left in 1976,” he said.
Garay’s account and Roberts’ discovery of the barrels suggest confusion among the top brass over how to remove the stocks of Agent Orange that were never officially supposed to have been present in Okinawa.
Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed 76 million liters of herbicides in Southeast Asia to rob its enemies of crops and jungle cover, but their use was halted after studies linked the chemicals to birth defects and serious illnesses.
In 1972, the U.S. removed its stockpiles of Agent Orange from South Vietnam to Johnston Island in the North Pacific where, after a five-year debate over how to dispose of them safely, they were eventually incinerated at sea in 1977.
Scientists researching the dangers of Agent Orange in South Vietnam have discovered that because its highly poisonous dioxin is not dissolved by rainwater, it can remain in the soil, poisoning people for decades. In southern Vietnam today, there are more than 20 dioxin hot spots at sites used by the U.S. military to store Agent Orange.
Near the Futenma base, which has been dubbed by some locals as “the world’s most dangerous military base” because of its proximity to residential areas, there are 20 schools, including 10 elementary schools. Some are located close to the area where the barrels were found and the contaminated water was expelled.
Yoichi Iha, mayor of Ginowan from 2003 to 2010, told The Japan Times that the U.S. Marine Corps failed to notify the Ginowan Municipal Government of the leak-age in 1981 and he worries that the area may still be poisoned by dioxin due to the topography beneath the base, which consists of many caves and natural springs.
“If the dioxin is still in the soil, then we can confirm its presence with sampling. But the Japanese government won’t grant permission to conduct such tests within U.S. installations in Okinawa,” Iha said.
The U.S. military — which under Japanese law is not responsible for cleaning up former bases returned to civilian usage — has an unenviable track record of polluting its installations in Okinawa.
In 1995, the Onna Communication Site was returned to civilian use, but it still hasn’t been redeveloped due to contamination from pollutants, including mercury and highly toxic PCBs. In 1999, dangerous levels of lead and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium were found in the soil after the partial closure of the Kadena Ammunition Depot.
Last summer, a U.S. veteran’s account of the 1969 burial of hundreds of barrels of Agent Orange in what is today a popular tourist area in Chatan Town alarmed local residents.
Explaining why the army buried the barrels, the veteran, who did not want his name to be revealed due to fears of repercussions from the Department of Veterans Affairs, said: “It was cheaper to bury stuff than to ship it back to the States for proper disposal. It’s what the military always did on Okinawa.”