Cablegate: Agent Orange/Dioxin Update

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. STATE 180975
B. STATE 155248
C. HANOI 0373
D. HANOI 1264

1. SUMMARY: On July 3, the Ambassador met with Vietnamese
VFM Nguyen Dinh Bin to deliver Ref A talking points on the
status of joint research on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Bin
emphasized the GVN's gratitude for humanitarian efforts by
non-governmental organizations and U.S. congresspersons who
have advocated the establishment medical research center for
Agent Orange "victims" in Hanoi. Bin appeared uninformed
and misinformed about the status of U.S. contributions to
promote the joint research program. Separately, on July
15, the Embassy received (via diplomatic pouch) and
delivered a high-resolution gas chromatography mass
spectrometer (GCMS) to the Vietnam National Center for
Natural Sciences and Technology (NCST). A two-person EPA
team visited Hanoi during July 24-30 to work with NCST
scientists on plans/requirements for installation of the
GCMS, and to map out a plan/schedule for training NCST
scientists in a bioassay technology, training in use of the
GCMS, and for characterization of a potential dioxin "hot
spot" site in Danang Airport. As of July 2, the Carpenter-
Tuong health research project had not been presented to
Committee 33, and the Vietnamese members of the Joint
Advisory Committee to be established per terms of the March
2002 MOU had not been appointed. END SUMMARY

Ambassador's Meeting with VFM Bin

2. On July 3, the Ambassador met with Vietnamese First Vice-
Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Dinh Bin, also a member
of Committee 33, to convey the points raised in Ref A
concerning the status and next steps on joint cooperation on
Agent Orange/Dioxin issue. EST Officer accompanied the
Ambassador. Mr. Pham Van Que, Deputy Director of the MFA's
Americas Department, also participated.

3. Prior to launching into a presentation of Ref A talking
points, the Ambassador informed VFM Bin that many U.S. and
international scientists did not accept claims made by
Vietnamese scientists about the affects of AO/dioxin on the
health of the Vietnamese people. The Ambassador noted that,
for example, while Vietnamese scientists attribute numerous
forms of birth defects on exposure of the parents to
AO/dioxin, international experts suspect that many are the
result of other factors, such as deficiencies in the
mother's diet. Based on this genuine scientific dispute,
the U.S. Government does not accept the label of "AO Victim"
placed on virtually every afflicted child. Bin, without
acknowledging the scientific debate, responded that the USG
should deal with this was a humanitarian issue. Bin several
times erroneously stated that dioxin was the "cause" of nine
diseases. Bin also ignored the point that international
scientific research has linked dioxin to only one form of
birth defect. The Ambassador agreed that assistance to
persons with health problems was indeed a humanitarian
issue, which is why the U.S. Government supported health
assistance programs in Vietnam and worldwide no matter what
the cause. (COMMENT: When Vietnamese officials use the
term "humanitarian assistance" related to the AO/Dioxin
issue, they are actually talking about financial
compensation to those persons whom the Government of Vietnam
(GVN) has identified - without scientific evidence - as
"victims of AO." END COMMENT.)

4. After The Ambassador completed presentation of Ref A
talking points, VFM Bin responded that he thought "good
progress" had been made in joint scientific cooperation. He
noted that the March 2002 International Conference on
AO/Dioxin had been the first of its kind, thus Vietnam's
slow pace in implementing the terms of the MOU was
"expected." He acknowledged that Vietnam needed to speed up
the appointment of the members of the Joint Advisory
Committee (JAC), and noted that formation of the JAC was
"important and inevitable." Bin stated that the Vietnamese
side had sent draft terms of reference (TOR) for the JAC to
the U.S. side, but had not received a response. EST Officer
informed Bin that Office 33 had sent the TOR document via
international mail to the U.S. National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) on or about June 30,
so NIEHS had not yet received the document. The Ambassador
pointed out that developing and coordinating TOR should be a
task for the JAC to accomplish during its first meeting, so
it was premature to discuss TOR without a committee. (NOTE:
EST Officer had received an informal copy of the TOR during
a visit to Office 33 on July 1. The document was presented
without explanation. On July 7, EST officer received an
official copy of the document, delivered to the Embassy via
the Vietnamese postal system. The envelope was postmarked
July 1. Another copy of the document arrived at NIEHS on
July 21. END NOTE.)

5. EST Officer gave a brief overview of status of "Project
2" (soil sampling and "hot spot" site characterization in
Danang Airport). Bin, citing talking points provided to him
by Office 33, pointed out that the U.S. had not yet provided
Vietnam with the results of tests of Danang soil samples
shipped to the U.S. in June 2002. EST Officer responded
that, contrary to Office 33's information, the test results
had been provided to scientists of the National Center for
Natural Sciences and Technology in early March 2003.

6. Bin continued that the GVN highly appreciated the
support received from NGO's and the efforts by three members
of the U.S. Congress who advocate the establishment of a
center for research and medical treatment of AO victims.
Bin expressed hope that the USG would assist by providing
funds for this center.

7. Deputy Director Que commented that the GVN did not view
this as a "legal case," even though Vietnamese authorities
were fully aware of the legal suit brought by U.S. veterans
against the U.S. manufacturer of AO. Que admitted that the
GVN had considered filing a similar suit, but had abandoned
that idea several years ago because of its negative
implications on the overall U.S.-Vietnam bilateral
relationship. Que said the GVN had appropriated a large
portion of its budget to assist people suffering from
AO/Dioxin exposure in all locations. Que also reiterated
Bin's appeal to view this as a humanitarian issue.

8. (COMMENT: Bin appeared uninformed and/or misinformed
about several issues related to the status of joint
cooperation on AO/dioxin. When EST Officer visited Office
33 on July 1, Dr. Nguyen Tien Dung had to cut the meeting
short in order to go the MFA for a meeting to prepare the
MFA for the Ambassador-VFM meeting. Based on remarks made
by Dung and other Vietnamese scientists, the MFA had not
sent a representative to attend working level meetings on
the joint research program for a long time. It appears that
Committee 33 has not met formally for an even longer time.
The fact that Bin did not appear to be well-informed about
the status of the joint program is very telling in terms of
how senior GVN leadership views the scientific cooperation.
When senior Vietnamese officials, either from MFA or other
agencies, appeal to senior U.S. officials for assistance in
"addressing the lasting effects of AO," they are not talking
about joint scientific research and capacity building; they
are talking about financial compensation and medical
treatment for all those who are classified as "AO victims"
and for clean-up of all potential dioxin "hot spots" on
former U.S. military bases and other locations. Even when
both sides use the term "humanitarian issue," usage of the
term differs in both meaning and intent. END COMMENT)

Update of Status of Project 2

9. On July 14, the high-resolution gas chromatography mass
spectrometer (GCMS) acquired by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) from the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) arrived in Hanoi via diplomatic pouch, and the
Embassy delivered it to the Vietnam National Center for
Natural Sciences and Technology (NCST) on July 15. NCST
intends to place the GCMS on the ground floor of NCST's
Institute of Chemistry. EPA officers William Coakley and
Vance Fong visited Hanoi July 24-30 and met with NCST
scientists from the Institute of Chemistry and Institute of
Biotechnology who are the principal researchers
participating in "Project 2" (environmental research on a
suspected dioxin "hot spot" in Danang Airport). The primary
Vietnamese contacts were Dr. Dang Thi Cam Ha, Head,
Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory; and Dr. Pham Huu Ly,
Deputy Director, Institute of Chemistry. (NOTE: The EPA
team will prepare a full, separate report on their visit.

10. The primary purposes of this visit to NCST were to
unpack and inspect all GCMS components, review in detail the
requirements and specifications for the installation as well
as the installation schedule to include assembly and
performance testing of GCMS and training of NCST personnel
in its use. These tasks should all be accomplished by
November 2003.

11. During the visit, the EPA officers informed NCST
scientists that EPA intends to fund the training of two NCST
scientists in a two-week session at the laboratory of the
company that produces the CALUX bioassay screening
technology. This training covers mammalian, liver cell
culturing and bioassay procedures, and all extractions,
cleanup, and analytical software procedures. Following this
training in the U.S., the company will provide additional
training at the NCST lab and provide all necessary supplies
and chemical reagents.

12. The two EPA officers and NCST scientists opened all the
crates containing the GCMS components, inspected the
separate components for any damage (none detected), and
conducted an inventory (nothing missing). They also
inspected the room that is being renovated to house the GCMS
and advised the Vietnamese on requirements for electric
power, cooling water, air conditioning, measures to
eliminate vibrational interference, electrical outlets, and
emergency shut-off switch.

13. On July 26, the EPA team met with Dr. Ha, Dr. Ly, and
Colonel Nguyen Quang Toai, Department of Science, Technology
and Environment, Ministry of National Defense (MND), to
discuss in general terms a tentative plan and techniques for
hot spot site characterization and a subsequent pilot
remediation project at the former AO storage and loading
area at Danang Airport (the suspect dioxin hot spot from
which soil samples were taken). The discussions focused on
possible soil sampling techniques that could most
efficiently and effectively determine the scope of the hot
spot and paths/routes of potential migration of dioxin away
from the hot spot. Dr. Ha (apparently without prior
coordination with Ly and/or Toai) suggested that Dr. Toai
would visit NCST on July 28 or 29 to provide more details
concerning the actual dimensions of the storage/loading
area, the surrounding topography, and stream that passes by
the area. However, Dr. Toai never visited NCST for follow-
up discussions.

14. On July 29, Dr. Dang Vu Minh, General Director, NCST,
hosted a lunch in honor of the EPA officers to acknowledge
their efforts in Project 2 and the acquisition and delivery
of the GCMS. Dr. Minh was extremely grateful for the GMCS
and stated that he hoped the installation could be completed
by the end of the year so that soil sampling using the GCMS
could be accomplished by January 2004. He said he intended
to request additional funds from the Ministry of Science and
Technology (one source of NCST's budget) for upgrading the
room containing the GCMS. He also expressed great
enthusiasm about the potential of receiving the CALUX
technology. (COMMENT: Dr. Minh is a member of the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam and a member of
the National Assembly, so he has some political clout as
well as scientific expertise. He is a chemist and former
Director of NCST's Institute of Chemistry. His support for
Project 2 is very important. END COMMENT)

15. Overall, the visit was successful and productive. The
Vietnamese are very interested in moving forward with
certain aspects of Project 2. The EPA team and NCST
scientists devised a schedule of events (installation of
GCMS, training in use of GCMS, training in CALUX technology,
transfer of CALUX technology) per EPA's objectives.
However, EST Officer and the EPA team detected several
potential negatives:

--In discussions on hot spot site characterization and
remediation, it became apparent that differences in opinion
on "how hot is hot" and/or "what's hot and what's not" could
surface as we attempt to move forward in developing a site
characterization plan. When the EPA team explained U.S.
guidelines and standards for levels of contamination
permitted for residential vice industrial areas, the
Vietnamese responded that the Vietnamese leadership would
not accept such a distinction and would want remediation to
bring contamination down to a level fit for residential
purposes. At this point, EST Officer pointed out that since
Vietnam, not the U.S., would pay for remediation efforts
beyond this one pilot project, the Vietnamese leadership
would probably have to adopt a less rigid policy.

--In early March 2003, the EPA had sent the NCST
scientists the test results and analyses for the ten Danang
soil samples shipped to the U.S. in July 2002. Prior to
shipment, Dr. Ha and Dr. Ly had agreed to perform similar
tests (possibly with low resolution GCMS) on samples of the
same soil in order to have a comparison of the two test
results. When the EPA officers inquired about NCST's test
results (which EPA had never received), Dr. Ha replied that
she did not have sufficient funds in her budget to pay for
the tests. According to Dr. Ha, the cost for a test
conducted in Vietnam was $600/sample. The EPA team obtained
Ha's agreement to have tests conducted on 3-5 of the most
highly contaminated of the ten samples. This exemplifies a
persistent detractor to establishing a reliable partnerhip -
verbal commitments from the Vietnamese side during face-to-
face meetings are often ignored and the Vietnamese often do
not respond in a timely manner to queries via e-mail.

--The role of the MND and its cooperation with NCST and
EPA is critical to the success of site characterization and
future pilot remediation project at Danang. More than one
year ago, EPA initially requested past sampling results
conducted by either MND and NCST, but the Vietnamese have
not delivered. EPA officers and EST officer sense that
there potential conflict between NCST and MND could develop
over control of the joint project. It is very possible that
MND is envious of the technical and material support (lab
equipment, training, GCMS) given to NCST.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
--------------------------------------------- ---------

16. In a letter dated June 23 (postmarked July 1), Dr.
Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, Director, National Environmental Agency
(NEA), Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment,
responded to a 27 February 2003 letter from Dr. Kenneth
Olden and Dr. Anne Sassaman of NIEHS urging the Vietnamese
to appoint members to the Joint Advisory Committee (JAC).
Sinh's letter was addressed to Olden, Sassaman, and Embassy
EST Officer. The letter ignores the critical issue of the
JAC, but takes the offensive to criticize the U.S. for
delays in Project 2. Pertinent translated extracts follow.
BEGIN QUOTE: Although recently there were organizational
changes in the Government, such as some ministries were
split and some new ministries have been established, these
changes have not affected the activities of the Steering
Committee 33. We also note the delay by the United States
in the implementation of Project No 2. The Vietnamese side
has invested in the construction and provided funding for
the newly built laboratory belonging to the Institute of
Chemistry, National Center for Natural Sciences and
Technology, which will be used for Project No 2. At the
same time, we have sent 10 soil samples of the Da Nang
airport area to the Untied States for dioxin analyses as per
the agreement between Vietnam and the United States under
Project No 2 framework. We look forward to the United
States' prompt completion of Project No 2. In particular,
the United States will follow the plan agreed upon in Hawaii
on the provision of some testing equipment and instruments,
and on completion of some analytical methods including the
Calux analytical method and a high resolution GCMS in order
to enhance the quality of residual dioxin assessment at
site, as well as to have scientific basis to determine
poison cleaning methods for Da Nang area in the future. END

17. NIEHS did not receive this letter until July 21.
Although the letter does not mention an attachment, a draft
TOR for the JAC was attached without explanation. Also,
Sinh's letter implies erroneously that EPA made a formal
commitment to provide the GCMS. EPA only promised to make a
serious effort to locate a used GCMS. The Vietnamese were
made fully aware that funding for this acquisition was not
readily available within EPA's budget. The fact that EPA
delivered reflects highly on their positive attitude toward
achieving success in this project. The letter also does not
give EPA credit for providing test results on the 10 soil
samples or for supplying the majority of the equipment and
supplies for the laboratory in NCST. EST Officer and Dr.
Sassaman are preparing a response to Sinh.

18. On 1 July, EST Officer met with Dr. Nguyen Tien Dung,
Director, Office 33. Dung stated that the Carpenter-Tuong
health research project had not yet been submitted to
Committee 33 for review and approval. Dung said that he had
sent the grant proposal back to the Ministry of Health for
further review and comment because he wanted to know how
this project would relate to a similar health research
project currently funded by the GVN. Dung could not state
with certainty when the proposal would be presented to
Committee 33 or when the GVN would appoint members of the

19. As of August 1, the NCST had not yet received approval
from Committee 33 to hold a joint workshop on remediation
technologies to be funded and joint organized by NIEHS,
tentatively scheduled for early November 2003. NIEHS is
funding the travel of two NCST scientists from the Institute
of Biotechnology and one officer from NCST's International
Cooperation Department to visit NIEHS in Research Triangle
Park and to visit EPA in Washington, DC in late August -
early September. The purpose of the meetings is to plan the
remediation workshop and discuss overall cooperation in
environmental research.

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