Quiet burial of a secret agent

This article, by ICIJ member Jan Mayman, appeared originally in <i>The Weekend Australian</i>, January 12-13, 2002, and is reposted here with permission.

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DWELLINGUP — Like the cry of a wounded bird, it rang out in the Hanoi street, high and plaintive: "Dioxin, Dioxin..."

It was the song of a small beggar woman sitting on a child-sized cane chair. She wore a long graceful blue silk tunic. Her hands were tiny, fingerless paws, her body twisted, her feet bent at unnatural right angles. A wide conical hat protected her ivory complexion. She looked like a broken doll. There were pitiful beggars keening like her everywhere in Hanoi, crippled with birth defects from dioxin in the Agent Orange herbicide rained on their country during the ‘American War’ as the Vietnamese call it.

My road to Hanoi began in a orchid-strewn Jarrah forest near Dwellingup, in the Darling Ranges 100 km south of Perth, Western Australia. I was walking with a local friend, Helen Wren, a legendary bushwoman, and asked her about a strange barren space between the trees.

“This is where they buried that Agent Orange twenty years ago,” she said. “It’s supposed be dangerous stuff, army surplus from Vietnam.”

I was stunned. There was no fence, no warning sign. Dioxin lasted hundreds of years, I knew. The lethal chemicals could be leaking into the soil and the groundwater.

Dwellingup is a high rainfall area — the name means `place of many waters’ in the Nyoongah Aboriginal language. Its streams feed into rivers and dams. My friend explained how the chemicals were buried after a worker was accidentally splashed with the Agent Orange. He spent months in hospital and eventually died of cancer: everyone knew about him; he was a famous axe man, Len Miller.

Helen often worried about her husband and his workmates in the Department of Conservation and Land Management because they often had to spray herbicides. Yet the Conservation Department built a caravan park near the dump, insisting the area was safe. Protests and warnings from concerned locals — even its own staff — were skillfully dismissed as anti—tourist propaganda.

To protect her husband from any problems — CALM is the main local employer — Helen asked me not to write about the toxic pit until I had confirmation elsewhere. Everyone in the close—knit community of four hundred people would realize she was my source, we both knew.

But Helen is dead now – of cancer – and her husband has retired and moved away, so I can tell the story at last. For years I tried to get the facts, repeatedly blocked by an extraordinary barrage of government secrecy and prevarication.

Even questions in Parliament went unanswered, despite a determined attack by Vietnam SAS veteran Reg Davies, a former independent MP. Among the sixteen he asked in vain in 1994: “Will the minister table all Environmental Protection Authority reports relating to tests on the site, including those that state 24D, 245T and Vorox were found on the site, contrary to CALM statements?”

(24D and 245T are the components of Agent Orange)

Early records had been lost, said the department, even though a chemical dumpsite was clearly marked on a map I obtained from the West Australian Environmental Protection Authority.

I went to Vietnam to find answers. Talk to the old soldiers at the War Museum, I was told in Hanoi. The museum was closed, but some ageing, uniformed ex-soldiers were in a back room drinking. In broken French, I asked if Agent Orange shipped to Australia after the US defeat. Where was Australia, they asked, offering me a glass of rice wine.

One of their drinking companions offered to interpret, an Italian in a sharply cut grey suit and Panama hat. Ah yes said the Vietnamese, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, they found huge quantities of Agent Orange, which they sold to war surplus buyers.

At Hanoi University’s Medical School, Professor Le Cao Dai explained, in excellent English, the effects of Agent Orange on a Vietnamese population of over seventy million when the war ended: extraordinary rates of cancer and thyroid disease, millions of children later born with birth defects.

Drawing back a green curtain, he exposed a wall of shelves with scores of pickled specimens in large glass jars: human foetuses, grotesquely deformed. There was do doubt these were due to dioxin from Agent Orange, he said. Many US scientists, even Australian doctors, had come to learn about his research.

An estimated one hundred million liters of the defoliant were sprayed on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. The European-educated Vietnamese professor was astonished to learn that the herbicide had been widely used in Australia for years. He knew that when the US and Australian forces retreated, many carried dioxin in their bodies, unaware they were doomed to father children with heart-breaking birth defects in years to come.

I told Helen all about it in our forest rambles. For years we worried about the people of Dwellingup, and the thousands of tourists who visit the pretty little town every year. I spent those years searching for witnesses prepared to publicly confirm the story. Finally, this week, I spoke to Peter Bass, an ex-workmate of Len Miller.

“He was our supervisor, and he came up to Dwellingup to help us with a problem we had mixing this batch of Agent Orange back in 1975,” he said. “It came in 44 gallon drums with no labels, and no instructions. The former Forest Department had got a special batch in from somewhere, very cheaply we heard.”

“We were told to mix it at the rate of one or two liters per one hundred liters,” Bass said. “It took Len about four hours till he got the new stuff to mix properly so the spray gun would operate. While he worked, the chemical dripped down his thick work jeans and into his socks. He was soaked.”

“About two weeks later he came out with a bad rash, and then we heard he was really sick and had gone to hospital. He was in there for the best part of a year.”

“They buried the stuff around the time Len was due to go before a Medical Board to see if he was fit to go back to work. I don’t know who gave the orders to bury it.” (The Forest Department replaced by Conservation and Land Management in 1985).

“Another man who worked with us at the time died later on too, an Aboriginal chap called Bob Isaacs. My own health is good though.”

Peter Bass, aged 66, a father of eight, is about to retire as a Training Officer at the Harvey Agricultural College. He worked for the Agriculture Protection board from 1975 to 1979: “We sprayed blackberries in the forest between November and March. We never wore much protective clothing, it was just too hot. You’d die of dehydration if you did.”

“We didn’t spray all the forest, just the areas where blackberries were encroaching on private properties and down along the river,” Bass said.

Dwellingup’s riversides are crowded with family campers in summer months and picnickers in the Spring wildflower season.

“It was impossible to stop the chemical spray getting into the water,” Peter Bass said.

Len Miller’s widow declines to talk about her family tragedy: “Nothing I say will bring him back,” she said. “But I know about those buried drums of chemicals. They should be dug up and destroyed.”

Senior academic experts in the area strongly agree with the widow: “The technology exists to destroy these chemicals safely,” said Professor Ben Selinger, the chemist who advised on decontamination of the Sydney Olympics site. “Dioxin from the Agent Orange may already be leaching into the ground water. The drums should be removed as soon as possible.”

Dwellingup sculptor Carl McMillan has campaigned for years to have the site decontaminated and now he’s hoping for some action at last: “The trouble is, most people are too busy to care about things like this unless they are in their own backyard,” he said.

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