Thirty-five years after the war in Vietnam ended, the chemical Agent Orange still pervades the soil of the southeast Asian nation. In many places, the land remains scarred. None of America's former military bases has yet been cleaned up. Congress first allocated money to cleanup dioxin-contaminated land three years ago for a project at Da Nang airport in Central Vietnam.
One football field away from the runway at Danang Airport, the terrain is rugged. The grass grows as tall as a person. Then the vegetation breaks open into a barren, circular clearing. The air reeks of solvent from the chemicals saturating the ground. This clearing was a former storage area for the 55-gallon metal barrels that stored Agent Orange.
"It is one area that doesn't have vegetation, which is unusual," said Randa Chichakli with CDM International. The US government contracted with CDM to clean up the dioxin that taints the airport grounds. "We're surrounded by tall grasses, so obviously there's something in the soil that prevents the vegetation from naturally growing in this area."
The soil here is toxic, and Chichakli wears plastic boots to protect her feet from contamination. Soil tests show this and other areas of the former military base contain dioxin levels up to 360 times higher than what California allows in commercial sites. Nguyen Van Dung didn't know that when he hired on at the airport 14 years ago.
"If I knew it was contaminated I wouldn't have worked there," Dung said. "If I knew it was going to affect my children, I wouldn't have had them."
Dung had two children after he started working at the airport. He and his family also ate fish and duck from nearby Sen Lake. During Vietnam's frequent heavy rains, contaminated sediment would pour from the airport grounds into the lake.
Dioxin concentrates in fatty tissues, contaminating the fish and duck in Sen Lake. A 2009 study by the Canadian environmental firm, Hatfield Consultants, found residents in Dung's neighborhood had dioxin levels 10 times higher than most Americans.
Dung's one healthy child was born before he began the airport job. He was hired to clean out the mud-clogged sewers, and to dig ditches that funneled water and sediment away from the airport runway and to the lake. That was before airport officials built a sediment trap to keep the dioxin from reaching Sen Lake.
Dung spent his days slogging through mud and soil contaminated with dioxin. His second daughter died when she was seven, from a rare blood and bone disease that Vietnamese doctors and scientists have told him was due to his dioxin exposure.
Now his two-year-old son is sick with the same disease. The child is currently in the hospital for a blood transfusion, a treatment for the disease that robs him of bone marrow.
"At the new year, his mother took him to get photographed," Dung said. "That way, we have a nice photo of him to display on the family altar. We know he's not going to live very long."
Beyond a wall that separates Dung's neighborhood from the airport, researchers are drilling to find out how far down the dioxin has gone into the soil. In 2007, the U.S. Congress appropriated 12 million dollars for the cleanup of the airbase, and remediation assessments began a year later.
The plan is to scoop up all the contaminated soil and sediment, and move it into a landfill. Then it'll get baked at high heat for three years, until the dioxin dissipates. Michael Michalak, the American Ambassador to Vietnam, says the U.S. is committed to the cleanup.
"We have been asked to take care of Danang, we're on a path to take care of Danang, and I think within the next 2-3 years, we will take care of Danang," Michalak said. "Beyond Danang, we'll see. We'll see."
So far, the U.S. government has committed less than half of the $34 million needed to cleanup Danang airport. And there are about two dozen former U.S. military bases that have elevated levels of dioxin. Vietnamese environmentalist Vo Quy is a prominent voice among scientists and policymakers calling on the U.S. to commit $300 million for healthcare and cleanup over the next decade.
"It's about moral responsibility and fairness," Quy said. "The Americans caused this problem. The U.S. government and U.S. people must take responsibility to help Vietnam solve this problem."
Across the country, swaths of South Vietnam are still scarred. Many jungle areas that were denuded have not grown back into the ecosystems they used to be. In the village of Mau Lanh, Bui Duc Thanh says a way of life has been lost.
"The forest is our treasure, the thing we love the most. It gave us trees, it held back the rain. But after the war, it give us nothing," Thanh said. "The forest has changed. And in my soul, I don't feel as happy. Before the war and the spraying of the poison, you could go into the beautiful forest, swim in the springs and write poems about it. Now, it seems very empty."
It's unclear whether the U.S. will foot the bill to clean up other military bases, or help restore the pre-war ecosystem. For Vietnamese here and in the United States whose lives have been touched by Agent Orange, the wait continues.