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Agent Orange in Korea

In May, three former U.S. soldiers admitted to dumping hundreds of barrels of chemical substances, including Agent Orange, at Camp Carroll in South Korea in 1978. This explosive news was a harsh reminder to South Koreans of the high costs and lethal trail left behind by the ongoing U.S. military presence.

“We basically buried our garbage in their backyards,” U.S. veteran Steve House told a local news station in Phoenix, Arizona. A heavy equipment operator in the Army, House said he was ordered to dig a ditch the length of a city block to bury 55-gallon drums marked with bright yellow and orange labels: “Province of Vietnam, Compound Orange.” House said that the military buried 250 drums of defoliants stored on the base, which served then as the U.S. Army Material Support Center in Korea. Later they buried chemicals transported from other places on as many as 20 occasions, totaling up to 600 barrels.

“This stuff was just seeping through the barrels,” said Robert Travis, another veteran now living in West Virginia. “There was a smell, I couldn’t describe it, just sickly sweet.” Immediately after wheeling the barrels from a warehouse at Camp Carroll, Travis developed a severe rash; other health problems emerged later. He said there were “approximately 250 drums, all OD (olive drab) green… with a stripe around the barrel dated 1967 for the Republic of Vietnam.”

A third soldier, Richard Cramer of Illinois, said that his feet went numb as he buried barrels of Agent Orange at Camp Carroll. He spent two months in a military hospital and now has swollen ankles and toes, chronic arthritis, eye infections, and impaired hearing. “If we prove what they did was wrong,’ says Cramer, “they should ‘fess up and clean it up and take care of the people involved.”

The three veterans are now seriously ill. Steve House suffers from diabetes and neuropathy, two out of 15 diseases officially linked to Agent Orange. “This is a burden I’ve carried around for 35 years,” House, aged 54, told Associated Press reporters. “I just recently found out that I have to have some major surgery… If I’m going to check out, I want to do it with a clean slate.”

The Missing Barrels

A deadly herbicide, Agent Orange is widely known for its use during the Vietnam War when the U.S. military sprayed an estimated 10 million gallons on forests and rice fields. In Korea, the U.S. military used Agent Orange along the de-militarized zone to defoliate the forests and prevent North Koreans from crossing the border.

“The United States Army has acknowledged that pesticides, herbicides and other toxic compounds were buried at Camp Carroll,” writes New York Times reporter Mark MacDonald. Although the chemicals and about 60 tons of contaminated soil were purportedly dug up and removed, “the Army is still searching its records to discover what became of the excavated chemicals and soil.”

According to a February 25, 2011 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Far East Command, the U.S. military has discovered evidence of a burial site within Camp Carroll measuring 83 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. It confirmed contamination on the base with high concentrations of highly carcinogenic perchloroethylene (PCE), pesticides, heavy metals, and components of dioxin. According to Hankyoreh, the report also cites testimony from a Korean employee, Gu Ja-yeong, who worked at Camp Carroll and participated in burying drums, cans, and bottles containing chemicals in 1974 and 1975. The report recommends monitoring once or twice a year and removing the soil from the burial site because ground-water chloroform levels were 24 times the South Korean standard for drinkable water. Chloroform is a carcinogen that can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system problems.

Two earlier environmental studies of Camp Carroll, commissioned by U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), were not shared with the South Korean government until the recent whistle-blowing by the U.S. vets. In 1992, a Woodward-Clyde report confirmed the burial of toxic chemicals. “Many potential sources of soil and groundwater contamination still exist at the base and the presence of contaminated groundwater has been documented,” the report stated. “From 1979 to 1980, approximately 6,100 cubic feet (40 to 60 tons) of soil were reportedly excavated from this area and disposed offsite.”

Samsung C&T reported on a second survey in 2004. This also found soil samples from the base contained pesticides and dioxins: “Hazardous materials and waste, including solvents, petroleum oils and lubricants, pesticides, herbicides and other industrial chemicals have been used and stored onsite for over 40 years.” The Korea Herald reported, “more than 100 kinds of harmful chemicals including pesticides and herbicides were buried.” Hankyoreh reported that the Samsung survey found “quantities of highly carcinogenic trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) at 31 and 33 times the standard levels of potable water, respectively.” The 2004 report estimated that it would cost $98.3 million to remove all the contaminated soil from Camp Carroll. Both the 1992 and 2004 reports state that a significant amount of soil had been excavated, but they differ as to when this actually happened. According to the Korea Times, the 2004 report concluded, “The fate of the excavated drums is unknown”.

So what happened to the buried chemicals?

Camp Carroll is located in Waegwan, about 20 miles north of Daegu. “If Agent Orange was dumped in 1978, the drums may have already eroded. And the toxic substance could have contaminated the soil and underground water near the area,” said Chung In-cheol of Green Korea United. “The U.S. camp is situated just 630 meters away from the Nakdong River,” says Chung, “which is the water source for major cities like Daegu and Busan.”

Cancer rates in the Chilgok area near Camp Carroll were up to 18.3 percent higher than the national average between 2005 and 2009, according to Statistics Korea’s website, and mortality rates for nervous system diseases were above the national average.

Soil and Water Contamination

Environmental contamination on U.S. bases in South Korea has been a source of contention between Washington and Seoul. Since 2001, South Korea has spent $3.4 million to clean up 2,000 tons of oil-contaminated ground water near Yongsan Army Garrison and Camp Kim. The South Korean military is now conducting environmental tests at 85 former U.S. bases that were returned to South Korean control between 1990 and 2003.

With the latest revelations, the South Korean public is calling for a full-scale assessment of the environmental damage of all U.S. military facilities in Korea. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two nations, the United States has no responsibility to clean up the land it uses for bases. Some advocates are seeking a revision of the SOFA to hold Washington responsible for the contamination it causes.

After House spoke out, the USFK and the South Korean government assured the public that they would research his claims, though they disagreed about the method of investigation. The USFK preferred to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR) while the South Korean government insisted on sampling the soil and underground water. According to Hankyoreh, GPR can test for foreign matter such as canisters containing harmful materials, but it cannot verify soil or water contamination. “The South Korean government has repeatedly stated that this kind of investigation is incapable of resolving the questions harbored by the population,” said a Ministry of the Environment official.

The joint ROK-U.S. team is using ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity devices at 41 sites since the news broke in late May. According to a team official, the USFK is not just worried about dioxin, but other toxic and carcinogenic materials, which soil and water tests can detect. Indeed, investigation of an underground stream and groundwater near Camp Carroll has shown traces of PCE, a known carcinogen that attacks the nervous system and can cause reproduction problems. The Chilgok regional government sealed the well upon learning from the joint Korea-U.S. team that the amount of PCE exceeded the level for acceptable drinking water.

Lessons from Vietnam

Agent Orange contains the deadly chemical dioxin, a byproduct of industrial processes involving chlorine or bromine. Decades after its use in Vietnam, there is still great controversy about its effects on human and environmental health, despite the fact grandchildren of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians have been born with abnormalities attributable to their ancestors’ exposure.

In 1995, Arnold Schecter and Le Cao Dai of the Vietnam Red Cross published research findings showing “that high levels of dioxin contamination persist in the blood, tissue, and breast milk of Vietnamese living in sprayed areas.” Schecter tested soil and human tissue samples from people living near the former Bien Hoa U.S. military base where 7,500 gallons of Agent Orange were spilled in 1970.

In 1998, Hatfield Consultants published the results of a four-year study of soil and water samples in the A Luoi valley near the Ho Chi Minh trail and the site of three former U.S. Special Forces bases where Agent Orange was stored and sprayed. Working with Vietnamese scientists, Hatfield found “a consistent pattern of food chain contamination by Agent Orange dioxin… which included soil, fishpond sediment, cultured fish, ducks and humans.” They found dioxin levels in some breast milk samples to be dozens of times higher than maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

Although Vietnamese officials and scientists believe that many thousands of people are victims of Agent Orange, “remarkably little has been proved with scientific certainty,” Robert Dreyfuss wrote in 2000. The Institute of Medicine reports “strong evidence that exposures to herbicides is associated with five serious diseases, including Hodgkin’s disease and a form of leukemia… and ‘suggestive’ evidence that herbicides might cause birth defects and cancer.” A major factor limiting serious research into dioxin contamination is the high costs. According to Dreyfuss, it cost $600 to $1000 to test one single soil or tissue sample for tiny traces of Agent Orange dioxin.

Since 1981, U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to dioxin have been entitled to register with the Veteran Administration’s Agent Orange Registry. Of the nearly 3 million U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam, approximately 300,000 veterans are on the list and entitled to free annual health exams. In a 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Perlman wrote that more than 22,000 vets have successfully claimed disability and are entitled to “free long-term treatment for a variety of disorders that are ‘presumptively’ caused by exposure to dioxin.” Compensation has ranged from $104 to $2,193 a month.

U.S. veterans have attempted to sue the manufacturers of Agent Orange for compensation. In 1984, seven U.S. chemical companies agreed to settle a suit brought by U.S. veterans in 1979. In making this settlement, the companies refused to accept liability, claiming that the scientific evidence did not prove Agent Orange was responsible for the medical conditions alleged. By 1997, 291,000 U.S. veterans had received a total of $180 million dollars over a period of 12 years. “My brother was given $362, and me, I was given $60,” recalls U.S. veteran George Johnson. “My brother has never been able to have kids.”

South Korean veterans who served in the Vietnam War also attempted to sue Agent Orange manufacturers. In 2006, the Korea Times reported that the “Seoul High Court ruled that Dow Chemical and Monsanto should pay $63 billion won ($62 million) to a group of 6,700 Korean veterans… who first filed lawsuits against the company in 1999.” However, this ruling is largely symbolic since the Korean authorities cannot force the companies to comply.

Why Act Now?

When asked why he came forward now, Steve House said, “I’ve wanted the government to take care of this nightmare I’ve had to live with for the last 30 years. I don’t want to poison kids or anything, and I don’t want to hurt GIs.”

For House and other vets, also at issue is the question of medical compensation. According to the U.S. Veterans Affairs website, “Veterans who served … in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) anytime between April 1, 1968 and August 31, 1971 and who have a disease VA recognizes as associated with Agent Orange exposure are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides. These Veterans do not have to show they were exposed to Agent Orange to get disability compensation for these diseases.” Veterans like House, however, who were exposed to Agent Orange after this time period, or in other parts of Korea outside of the DMZ, are not considered eligible for disability compensation.

Although more information is likely to emerge from the joint U.S.-R.O.K. investigation in the coming weeks, both the U.S. and Korean public must ask and demand answers to many urgent questions. What happened to the barrels of Agent Orange and contaminated soil at Camp Carroll? How much dioxin and other contaminants have leached into the soils surrounding Camp Carroll and other U.S. military bases? Will the U.S. government provide medical assistance and financial compensation to the veterans who handled a substance that was known to be toxic in 1978? Who will compensate Koreans who may have been exposed to these contaminants?

Based on the experience of thousands of U.S. vets and civilians who live around U.S. bases — in this country and overseas — even routine military operations can have serious long-term costs to human health and the environment. Without adequately addressing its toxic legacy in South Korea, the U.S. military continues to take fertile land to expand and create new bases, as it did in seizing rice paddies from farmers in Pyongtaek. The ROK-U.S. naval base now under construction on Jeju Island will have a devastating impact on the island’s marine ecology, affecting fishermen and women sea divers who depend on the clean sea for their livelihood, and the Korean people who rely on the ocean for seafood. The blind rhetoric of national security must no longer trump human security, certainly not when the U.S. military isn’t even willing to provide adequate medical care to its own veterans and protection to the Korean people they are purportedly in Korea to defend.

*Christine Ahn is the Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, and Gwyn Kirk is a member of Women for Genuine Security and a contributor to FPIF.


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