Two Years After Offer, US Yet to Clean Up War-Era Chemicals

Government officials on Thursday said they are still waiting for the U.S. Embassy to make good on a 2012 offer to clean up several barrels of the riot control agent CS that were dropped on Cambodia during the U.S.’ war with Vietnam and which the U.S. has admitted supplying.

Eleven of the barrel bombs, which were meant to explode in mid-air but failed to detonate, were first found in Mondolkiri province’s O’Reang district near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam in 2012 and have yet to be moved. At least one more barrel, possibly two, were found in the same district late last month.

The fine powdery chemical was deployed over the forests of southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s to drive Vietcong forces out of hiding and expose them to enemy attack. CS can induce tears, dizziness and vomiting, even blistering, and the old barrels found in Cambodia are still believed to pose a health risk.

“We don’t know why it [the U.S.] still stands still,” said Lieutenant General Ke Da, deputy secretary general of the National Authority for the Prohibition of Chemical, Nuclear Biological and Radiological Weapons (NACW).

At his office on Thursday, Lt. Gen. Da said the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sent a research team to Cambodia in early 2012 to test the barrels that were recently found in Mondolkiri and concluded that they all contained CS.

He showed reporters a letter the U.S. Embassy sent Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in August 2012 accepting responsibility for the barrels and offering to help.

“The Government of the United States agrees with the OPCW TAV [technical assistance visit] that the remnants of drums containing the riot control agent CS appear to be of U.S. origin. The United States would like to offer goodwill assistance in resolving this problem but first needs a formal written request for assistance from the Cambodian Government in order to formally consider the provision of assistance,” the letter reads.

Lt. Gen. Da said his office sent the Embassy a “draft” of the suggested request—to be refined in consultation with the U.S.—in July 2013, just shy of a year later. The letter is addressed to Colonel Craig Tippins, defense attache to the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia.

“The Kingdom of Cambodia request [sic] assistance from the United States to dispose of the remnants of the 11 CS filled drums outside the city of Orang in Mondolkiri province,” the request reads. “Additionally, the Kingdom of Cambodia requests assistance to survey the area immediately near and around the site for possible additional CS remnants requiring disposal.”

The U.S. Embassy did not reply by press time Thursday to a request for comment.

In Mondolkiri, O’Reang district governor Tong Tunnary said local villagers were anxious about the old chemicals in their midst and worried that more barrels may be scattered around them.

“They are concerned about the chemical weapons,” he said. “In the past they would get sick and think it was normal. But since they knew the area has chemical weapons, they are afraid and uncomfortable about living near them. If they can clean it up, it would be good for our villagers.”

According to a 2007 report in the Army Chemical Review, a publication of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, the U.S. sent an estimated 8.2 million kg of riot control agents to Vietnam between 1962 and 1972, most of it some version of CS.

Lt. Gen. Da agreed that more dud barrels could be scattered along the border, which was heavily bombed by the U.S. in pursuit of Vietcong forces traveling through eastern Cambodia along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The area is still scattered with old craters and unexploded bombs.

Lt. Gen Da said Cambodia still lacked the skills to safely get rid of the CS itself. All things considered, though, he said the 12 months he has been waiting to hear back from the U.S. Embassy was not so long.

“We are waiting and we have not asked,” he said. “These chemicals have been in our country since the 1960s, so it’s not so long to wait.”

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