By Michael F. Martin, Specialist in Asian Affairs, Congressional Research Service
U.S. assistance to Vietnam for the environmental and health damage attributed to a dioxin contained in Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed over much of the southern portion of the country during the Vietnam War remains a major issue in bilateral relations. Since 2007, Congress has appropriated over $130 million to address these two issues. Starting in FY2011, Congress has appropriated separate amounts for environmental remediation and for health and disability activities in areas of Vietnam that were targeted with Agent Orange or remain contaminated with dioxin.
Most of appropriated funds have been used by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for the environmental clean-up of Danang airport, one of the major airbases used for storing and spraying the herbicides between 1961 and 1971. A lesser amount of the appropriated funds have been used by USAID for assistance to Vietnam’s persons with disabilities, generally, but not always in the vicinity of Danang or other dioxin contaminated areas.
Congressional interest in Agent Orange/dioxin in Vietnam has largely been focused on two issues. The first issue is determining the appropriate amount and type of assistance to provide to address the environmental damage and the health effects of dioxin contamination in Vietnam. The second issue is oversight of how such assistance has been utilized by the State Department and USAID. According to USAID projections, the environmental remediation of Danang airport currently
underway by a process known as in-pile thermal desorption (IPTD) will be completed in March 2017 at an estimated cost of $88 million. This is $50 million higher than the original projected cost of the project. USAID has fully obligated those funds Congress has appropriated for environmental remediation assistance to Vietnam.
The provision of health-related assistance to areas contaminated with Agent Orange/dioxin has raised more issues. By May 2014, USAID had obligated less than two-thirds of the appropriated funds for fiscal years 2010-2013. In addition, the funds have generally been used for disability assistance programs regardless of the cause of the disability, rather than for both health and disability programs targeting populations residing near Agent Orange/dioxin “hot spots.” Field studies have identified a number of areas in Vietnam contaminated with the dioxin associated with Agent Orange, including the airports near Bien Hoa and Phu Cat, as well as sections of the A Luoi Valley. The U.S. and Vietnamese governments are jointly assessing the possibility of undertaking the clean-up of the Bien Hoa airport. One estimate projects the
environmental clean-up of Bien Hoa airport could cost over $250 million.
While the obligations for environmental remediation activities generally have not been a matter of congressional concern, how USAID has obligated appropriations for health and disability activities has drawn some attention.
Two bills—the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2016 (S. 1725); and the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015 (H.R. 2114)—would appropriate additional funds for FY2016. The Obama Administration requested $15.0 million under the Economic Support Fund (ESF) to continue the IPTD project at Danang airport and $4.75 million of Development Assistance (DA) funding for “social and economic services and protection for vulnerable populations.”