Okinawa's Agent Orange fears return with discovery of buried US barrels

Authorities demand the US reveal what now-empty Dow Chemical barrels, discovered buried on former air force land, once contained

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 2:09am

Persistent suspicions that the United States stored the defoliant Agent Orange at its bases on Okinawa are back in the spotlight after the recent discovery of ageing chemical barrels buried on former US Air Force land.

Although the US military has consistently denied ever using Okinawa to store or transport the chemical - which has been linked to illnesses and birth defects - officials and environmental groups on Okinawa have expressed their anger over the find and are demanding information.

On June 13, 15 barrels were uncovered during work to lay a soccer field in Okinawa City. One bore the name of US firm Dow Chemical and, most worryingly, environmentalists say, the barrels were all empty.

Dow was one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, when it was widely used to clear jungles and expose Vietcong fighters.

"They had been buried about one metre below the surface and were empty because the contents had leaked out into the surrounding area," said Masami Kawamura, director of environmental policy at the Citizens' Network for Biodiversity on Okinawa.

"This has caused a lot of concern among the people of Okinawa and we are calling on the city, the prefecture, the Okinawa Defence Bureau and the national government to carry out a thorough investigation - with transparency and accountability - into how these barrels were buried and what they originally contained," she said. "But already the Japanese and US governments are trying to cover this up."

Adding to Okinawans' concerns is a report by the Okinawa Defence Bureau that has identified high levels of aircraft fuel and petrol on land that was previously part of the US military's Camp Kuwae, also called Camp Lester.

US military veterans claim to have been involved in the unloading of drums of chemicals and spraying of herbicides around the perimeter fences of military facilities on Okinawa. Thirty years on, those former servicemen are suffering chronic illnesses that they blame on exposure to chemicals on Okinawa.

Rick Dewess, a former marine who was stationed on Okinawa in 1969 and 1970, suffers from a range of medical complaints, including diabetes, ischaemic heart disease and respiratory complaints. He blames dioxin contained in Agent Orange.

Dewess told The Japan Times that his wife had suffered a miscarriage, their first son had a kidney removed and required two further operations before the age of five, and that their second son had medical problems linked to his spine and thyroid.

The Pentagon denies Agent Orange was ever on Okinawa. "The United States takes allegations of Herbicide Orange exposure and related health problems very seriously," US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel David Honchul said. "However, the US government and independent expert researchers under contract have searched and have not found any documentary evidence that Herbicide Orange was ever used in, stored on or shipped through Okinawa.

"The veterans who made claims about Herbicide Orange remembered actual events that happened. However, the source documents showed that while these events took place, either the material involved was not Herbicide Orange or the location was not Okinawa."

Nevertheless, officials in the Okinawa government say local people are concerned.

"Cities, towns and villages throughout the prefecture are bringing their power together to try to get more information," a spokesman for the prefecture said. "We want the governments of Japan and the US to take civilians' worries seriously and to fully answer their questions."

Kawamura said: "I believe the stories that the veterans have told us, but the US cannot admit that it used Agent Orange here in Okinawa because they would have to pay huge amounts of compensation to everyone affected."