U.S. report to deny Agent Orange in Okinawa

Pentagon to admit pesticides dumped but not Vietnam War defoliant

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

A U.S. Department of Defense investigation into the presence of Agent Orange on Okinawa Island is set to support veterans’ allegations of the clandestine burial of potentially harmful chemicals there — but dismiss claims that the toxic Vietnam War defoliant was among them.

Sources knowledgeable about the final report say the inquiry is likely to uphold accounts that large amounts of military supplies, including pesticides, were dumped during the 1960s and ’70s at Okinawa installations — possibly including U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and a former military installation in the town of Chatan.

The admission is likely to fuel demands in the prefecture for environmental tests to ensure that the land — some of which has been returned to civilian use — is no longer contaminated.

According to information obtained by The Japan Times, the Pentagon launched the inquiry at the request of the Japanese government nine months ago. Full details of the final report will be announced in Washington next Tuesday at a meeting attended by officials from the Japanese Embassy and representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs — the agency responsible for deciding redress for service members sickened in the line of duty.

Over the past 18 months, The Japan Times has reported accounts from U.S. veterans that dozens of barrels of chemicals — including Agent Orange — damaged in a shipping accident were buried near Hamby Air Field, Chatan, in 1969. Today, the area is popular with tourists and the allegation of the burial caused alarm among local residents.

Several mayors, as well as Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, demanded a full probe. It was also reported that as many as 100 barrels of Agent Orange had been unearthed during construction work at Futenma in 1981, sickening the station’s former maintenance chief, retired Lt. Col. Kris Roberts.

In that case, it is alleged the chemicals were illegally removed from the base to be disposed of at an undisclosed location.

While the Pentagon report to be released next week may help the veterans directly involved in these burials receive redress for their exposure to chemicals, it is also likely to prompt an angry reaction from hundreds of other former service members who claim they were exposed to Agent Orange on Okinawa Island.

According to details of the Pentagon report obtained by The Japan Times, the inquiry will categorically deny claims that the defoliant was ever present on the island.

U.S. investigators apparently were able to track down records of the shipment of Agent Orange to Vietnam. Counter to some veterans’ assertions that the defoliant passed through Okinawa ports, none of the surviving documents suggest this was the case.

The report will also rebuff veterans’ accounts of spraying Agent Orange on bases by offering evidence that such substances were, in fact, nontoxic herbicides. However, the Pentagon did not attempt to contact any veterans to clarify their accounts of exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa, according to the sources.

Likely to draw the ire of many veterans was the man selected by the Pentagon to head its investigation: Alvin Young. A retired air force colonel with more than 40 years of experience investigating military usage of defoliants during the Vietnam War, Young has written dozens of reports and is the author of four books about Agent Orange.

However, his close connection to the Pentagon and previous research funding from the manufacturers of Agent Orange — including Dow Chemical and Monsanto — have led some veterans’ advocates to question his findings, which often downplay correlations between defoliants and human health effects.

Herb Worthington, chairman of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Agent Orange and Other Toxic Substances Committee, expressed anger when he learned of the report.

“These veterans of both sexes were there on Okinawa at different times, served in different branches, but they all have the same memories of being exposed to Agent Orange and many are ill today. They respected and loved our country — they believed it would never do anything to harm them,” Worthington said.