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[Editorial] Agent Orange probe

May 22, 2011 - 20:00 By 윤정순
The government has launched an investigation into the allegations that U.S. Forces Korea buried tons of Agent Orange at Camp Carrol in Waegwan, about 30 km north of Daegu, in 1978. The Ministry of Environment sent an inspection team to the camp area Friday to verify whether the claims, put forward by three U.S. veterans who served at the military base, are true.

The three veterans told a U.S. TV station last week that they had dug a ditch, nearly the length of a city block, on the premises of the base and buried about 250 drums of the defoliant. The whistleblowers said they have since developed health problems ― chronic arthritis, hearing loss and diabetes ― which they attributed to their exposure to the chemical.

Agent Orange is a highly toxic herbicide that was used during the Vietnam War. The U.S. military sprayed it to clear jungles. The defoliant was found to be contaminated with an extremely toxic dioxin compound. Dioxins are known carcinogens.

The whistle blowers’ revelation has sparked safety concerns among residents not just in Waegwan but in other parts of Gyeongsang provinces as the U.S. military base is just less than 1 km away from the Nakdong River, the water source for major cities in the southeastern part of the nation.

If the drums containing the defoliant were buried 33 years ago, they could have already been eroded. If so, the toxic chemical could have contaminated the soil and underground water near the military base. If the underground water has been polluted, the poisonous substance could have flowed into the Nakdong River, getting into the drinking water supply. If people used the water for irrigation, the harmful substance could have found its way into the food supply as well.

Given the grave implications, the government needs to hurry to determine whether the defoliant was really dumped at the U.S. base. In tracing the dump site, the government needs to secure cooperation from the U.S. government. The U.S. military said it has opened its own investigation into the case and is willing to conduct a joint inspection with Korea. The two sides should waste no time in launching a joint probe.

If the dumping allegations turn out to be true and contamination has occurred, the government will have to take follow-up measures promptly, including checking the health of the residents in and around Waegwan and assessing the damage to the environment.

For its part, the U.S. government will have to bear full responsibility for the recovery of the polluted areas and compensate for the environmental damage caused by the defoliant dumping. It should remember that a failure to act promptly to deal with the mess could reignite anti-U.S. sentiment in Korea.