KPHO-TV in Phoenix, Arizona on May 16 broadcast interviews with the three. One of them, Steve House, who served as a heavy machinery operator at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province in 1978 said, “Yeah, it haunts me. We basically buried our garbage in their back yard.” The soldiers were ordered to dig a ditch almost the size of a city block. “Fifty-five gallon drums with bright yellow, some of them bright orange, writing on them,” said House. “And some of the cans said Province of Vietnam, Compound Orange.”
Robert Travis, who served at Camp Carroll with House, said, “There were approximately 250 drums, all OD green,” adding he remembers hand-wheeling each barrel out of the warehouse. Travis said he developed a red rash all over his body after accidentally touching the chemical that seeped out of the drums. Agent Orange was widely used during the Vietnam War and is an extremely toxic chemical based on the carcinogenic compound dioxin and causes trees and plants to wither and die.
Korea and the US agreed to jointly investigate the claims by three American veterans. In a press briefing on May 22, Yook Dong-han, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, said, “The agreement was made at a meeting between Lim Kwan-bin, the chief of policy at the Defense Ministry and Lt. Gen. John Johnson, the commander of the 8th US Army.” An official with the Prime Minister’s Office said the investigation team will consist of Korean and American environmental experts and government officials as well as local residents and civic group members.
The US government was questioning the three former servicemen, who made the claim in a television interview. Lt. Gen. Johnson, in a press release on May 22, pledged all the pertinent information would be scrutinized and every effort made to ensure a transparent probe. He added the US would share all the data available and its own investigation plans at Camp Carroll. On May 21, Johnson toured the suspected sites at Camp Carroll alongside Shin Kyung-soo, the deputy chief of international policy at the Defense Ministry, and Dr. Lee Won-suk of the Environment Ministry. He visited the sites again on May 23 along with Environment Ministry officials, civilian experts and representatives of civic groups and local residents.
Dioxin Detected in Underground
Seoul and Washington start taking groundwater samples near Camp Carroll on May 27.
Tests conducted on water samples showed small traces of dioxin in two to three out of 10 underground water sources and three out of six streams near the base, but no concrete links to the base have yet been proven. The presence of the agent is a concern as it is occasionally found in the air, soil and streams, but rarely in underground water sources.
This is the second time that traces of the toxic chemical have been detected in underground water sources near Camp Carroll, following similar tests conducted in late May by a team of experts at POSTECH at the request of the provincial government. “The National Institute of Environmental Research verified the POSTECH analysis and discovered traces that showed the possibility of dioxin in samples of underground water, while samples from nearby streams clearly contained dioxin,” a government source said.
“The dioxin discovered in the underground water samples was within the limits set by the US Environmental Protection Agency and our Environment Ministry, so we will announce that no dioxin was discovered,” another official said. “But we need to conduct a further investigation into soil samples from Camp Carroll in order to determine whether the dioxin detected in the underground water and streams came from chemicals stored in the base.”
However the findings have already set some experts on edge. “Dioxin that is released from incineration facilities either falls to the ground or gets washed into streams by rain, so it is not that unusual to detect the chemical from such sources,” said a chemical-analysis expert familiar with the case. “But it is extremely rare for dioxin to be detected in underground water sources tens of meters below the surface, no matter how small the amount. There is a strong chance that the soil and underground water at Camp Carrollmay be contaminated.”
The groundwater drawn from a depth of 110 m has been drunk by about 300 residents at an apartment complex since 1992. The Chilgok government, which assessed the quality of groundwater since 2008, said PCE levels there never exceeded the acceptable limit. A central government official said health check-ups for local residents are in the works. About 0.001 to 0.01 pg of dioxin per liter of water was found in three of the six underground streams subject to the probe, far less than the drinking water quality standard in Japan of 1 pg or the US of 30 pg.
The joint investigation team said the amount is negligible. The team is now analyzing soil samples taken from 14 areas near Camp Carroll. Results will be out around July 15. “Dioxin concentration tends to dwindle by half two to six years after it is buried in the soil, and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D)will decay completely in the environment in a few months,” the official said. “Most of the chemicals may already have decayed” since the Agent Orange was dumped at Camp Carroll some 30 years ago, according to US veterans.
No Environmental Checks Made at
Former US Facilities
The Korean government failed to conduct environmental damage assessments at 113 US military bases that were returned to Korea between 1990 to 2004, a Defense Ministry official admitted on May 25. “According to a special agreement on environmental protection under the Status of Forces Agreement in 2001, the US military has no obligation to clean up environmental pollution at installations returned to Korea before 2005, and we had no authority to investigate them,” the official said. “As a result, we could not conduct any environmental damage assessments on 113 US bases that were returned until 2004, and to my knowledge no such assessment took place after their handover.”
Altogether 191 US military installations have either been returned to Korea or will be returned. Forty-six have been handed back since 2005, and 32 more are left. There was therefore no environmental assessment on Camp Mercer near Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, which was returned in 1993 and where a US veteran claimed a landfill containing hundreds of gallons of chemicals was buried back in 1964. “We did not conduct any environmental damage assessments because there were no known facilities there that could have caused any pollution,” the official said.
Now, the government is mulling a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States after revelations that the US Forces Korea buried vast amounts of hazardous chemicals at bases here in the 1960s and 70s. “The Foreign Ministry will look to supplement or revise the current SOFA if we feel that it is insufficient or lacks environmental provisions in resolving the Agent Orange issue,” ministry spokesman Cho Byung-je said May 26.” The most important thing at the moment is to find out the facts quickly and effectively,” the spokesman said, adding, “We’ll take the necessary steps as soon as the joint investigation is completed.”
The US military belatedly admitted that the chemical was dioxin but the levels were not hazardous to humans. However, the US military must disclose all results of soil tests at Camp Carroll and come clean about the exact amount of dioxin that was discovered. Even the slightest hint that the US military is hiding something could lead to widespread public distrust.