Incomplete records stunt Agent Orange probe
One ship carrying Agent Orange stopped on Guam en route to Vietnam
AT least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped on Guam on its way to Vietnam but no record exists showing that any cargo actually landed, according to the Government Accountability Office’s newly released report that further threatens to quash the veterans’ claims about herbicide use on island.
“Available shipment documentation indicates that nearly all of the Agent Orange procured was either used in U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia, used for testing, damaged, or destroyed,” GAO said.
“However, based on the available information, we identified at least one ship carrying Agent Orange that stopped at Port Apra (now Apra Harbor) on Guam on its way to Vietnam, although we could not locate any evidence showing that any cargo was offloaded.”
While Department of Defense documents identify the use of commercial herbicides on Guam, GAO said, “they do not identify the use of tactical herbicides" on island.
GAO has analyzed available logbooks for 152 of the 158 shipments of Agent Orange to Southeast Asia but it was unable to establish a clear picture because shipment records were either missing or incomplete as “they were likely not maintained during and after the Vietnam era.”
GAO found available records indicating that DOD procured approximately 13.9 million gallons of Agent Orange between 1963 and 1968, of which it used an estimated 12.1 million gallons in Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1970, used a small amount for testing; and incinerated another 2.3 million gallons in 1977.
“Thus, the total quantity of Agent Orange that DOD procured was approximately equal to the total quantity that records indicate was tested in the United States and its territories, damaged during storage and shipment, and used during the Vietnam War, combined with the total quantity that records indicate was disposed of afterwards,” GAO said. “However, some records are incomplete, such as shipment documentation and logbooks that identify ports where vessels stopped on the way to Southeast Asia.”
Veterans who were stationed on Guam between 1960s and 1970s have repeatedly testified they sprayed Agent Orange on military installations and peripheral areas on Guam. Initial samplings on Anderson Air Force Base in April this year, however, remained inconclusive.
Speaker Therese Terlaje earlier said she was informed by Guam Environmental Protection Agency administrator Walter Leon Guerrero that off-base sampling for Agent Orange was set to begin this week. Recommended areas included the fuel pipe line and the San Carlos Falls.
Terlaje said she was "disappointed but not surprised that the GAO does not confirm or deny that Agent Orange was used in Guam.”
Nevertheless, she said, "Based on the information in the report and the testimony of veterans, we hope to see swift response by DOD and the VA as recommended by GAO and continue to encourage the swift passage of HR 809 – 'Fighting for Orange-Stricken Territories in the Eastern Region Act' by Congress."
Other highlights from the report
Available records show that DOD stored and used commercial herbicides on Guam, possibly including those containing n-butyl 2,4,5-T, during the 1960s and 1970s, but documents do not indicate the use of tactical herbicides on Guam. Commercial herbicides were available through the federal supply system for use on U.S. military installations worldwide. For example, the fuel supply for Andersen Air Force Base was delivered by ship to the port at Naval Base Guam and was then delivered to the Air Force base by a cross-island fuel pipeline—see figure 11. A detailed 1968 report by the Naval Supply Depot states that the Public Works Center sprayed herbicides semi-annually to control the vegetation along fuel pipelines between the depot and Andersen Air Force Base.
Additionally, draft environmental assessments written in 1999 and 2009 by Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific, indicate that commercial herbicides containing 2,4-D were present on Guam, and that commercial herbicides containing 2,4,5-T, which included the contaminant 2,3,7,8-TCDD, had been used for weed control along power lines and substations through 1980. Further, a 1969 master storage plan for the Naval Supply Depot includes sketches of storage facilities that specify the location of weed killers.
Commercial herbicides approved for DOD procurement for use on installations were issued in 55-gallon drums and 5-gallon containers during the Vietnam War era, as were a range of other products, such as fuel oil and diesel. According to DOD officials, records for such purchases were not typically retained due to short record retention policies related to such routine supply transactions.
GAO said DOD’s official list of herbicide testing and storage locations outside of Vietnam that is posted on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website is inaccurate and incomplete. “For example, the list lacks clarity in descriptive information and omits both testing and storage locations and additional time periods covered by testing events,” the report said. “Also, the list has not been updated in over a decade, though DOD and VA have obtained reports on its shortcomings since 2006.”
A significant number of veterans who were stationed on Guam during the Vietnam War period attributed their diseases to their exposure to Agent Orange but the Department of Veterans Affairs has maintained an ambiguous position on herbicide use on Guam. Since 2005, it has been issuing conflicting decisions on Guam veterans’ claims. Some were approved, others were not. Master Sgt. Leroy Foster, one of the advocates for Guam veterans and for whom the pending Agent Orange bill in Congress was named, passed away last month.
“DOD and VA have not established a formal process for coordinating on how best to communicate information to veterans and the public regarding the presence of Agent Orange outside of Vietnam,” GAO said. “Without a reliable list with complete and accurate information and a formal process for DOD and VA to coordinate on communicating this information, veterans and the public do not have quality information about the full extent of locations where Agent Orange was present and where exposure could potentially have occurred.”
Testing for Agent Orange is challenging due to degradation of the herbicide’s two chemical components and a potential for sources of contamination other than the herbicide, GAO said.
“According to scientific research, the halflife (average time for components to decrease by half of the original amount) of Agent Orange’s two chemical components—n-butyl 2,4-D and n-butyl 2,4,5-T— in soil can range from several days to many months, depending on conditions,” the report said. “The suggested half-life of the dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD—a by-product of the 2,4,5-T manufacturing process—is much longer, but there are multiple sources of dioxins, including the burning of wood and waste.”
DOD and the U.S. and Guam Environmental Protection Agencies are testing for the acid form of the components of Agent Orange at AAFB. “While acknowledging the low probability of conclusively identifying the components of Agent Orange on Guam, DOD has made a decision to move forward with testing to address veterans’ and the public’s concerns, and it expects to complete the updates for the sampling and analysis plan, field sampling, analysis, and reporting in early 2019,” GAO said.
(Read more about Agent Orange in the December 2018 issue of the Pacific Island Times.)