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'Last ghost' of the Vietnam War Add to ...


Susan Bryant steers her silver Toyota down a gravel lane in a cemetery overlooking Elmira, a community of 12,000 surrounded by lush farmland about 15 kilometres north of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

But the 59-year-old English instructor at the University of Waterloo isn't here to commune with the dead. "There's the toxidome," she says, pointing beyond the barbed-wire fence to a massive, windowless structure. "My favourite view is looking back through the headstones."

Being next to a cemetery is a fitting location because the building is a kind of tomb - one designed to house the putrid remains of Canada's contribution to the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, the plant now known as Chemtura was owned by Uniroyal Ltd., one of seven suppliers of Agent Orange to the American military. About 2.6 million litres of the herbicide sprayed on the jungles and people of Vietnam were made here.

And like Vietnam, Elmira remains tainted by the experience: Dioxin still pollutes the soil in parts of town, its groundwater and, some whisper, its people.

The dome housed more than 46,000 tonnes of toxic waste that was generated by the plant, excavated in 1993 - more than two decades after Agent Orange production halted - and eventually shipped to a hazardous-waste landfill site near Sarnia, Ont. And yet the province has ordered a further cleanup, and local wells remain so poisoned that drinking water has to be piped in from Waterloo.

Even the cemetery is affected: The area adjoining the plant's old dumping ground is still too contaminated for burials. "I think," Ms. Bryant says dryly, "it could be a selling point: 'You will never decay. You will be pickled.'"

This long after the fact, few Canadians are aware of their country's infamous role in Vietnam, but the past weighs heavily on some.

"You'd do it all differently now," says Fred Hager, a chemical engineer who spent his 42-year career at the plant before retiring in 1986 as head of research and development. "Everybody would."

Now 88 and still a resident of Elmira, Mr. Hager will never forget the day in 1970 he travelled to Ottawa to test Uni-royal's herbicide with a new machine that could detect dioxin as low as one part per billion. The reading came back at more than one part per million - 10 times the level now generally considered safe.

"We shut the whole damn thing down," he says, "and made no more."


The U.S. began experimenting with defoliants in Vietnam in 1961, giving its first lethal herbicides such names as Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent Green, Agent White and Agent Pink after the colour of an identifying band on the drums in which they were stored.

Agent Orange, which was based on research Mr. Galston had conducted at the University of Illinois just before the Second World War (others used his research notes after he enlisted), was the last and most potent concoction employed in the defoliation campaign initially called Operation Hades (later renamed Operation Ranch Hand).

Despite warnings that it could harm humans, an estimated 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed. To make matters worse, the chemical was sprayed in concentrations higher than anything recommended for weed clearance even though by then the toxic effects of dioxin were well known. (Just one-millionth of a gram per kilo of body weight can cause birth defects and reproductive failure in laboratory animals.)

In total, the equivalent of at least 366 kilograms of pure dioxin were dropped. The compound takes decades to break down in the environment, and today millions of Vietnamese are still exposed to it in a series of "hot spots" where Agent Orange was stored during the war.

The cost of cleaning up just three of these sites has been estimated at $60-million, and an extreme example is Bien Hoa, a town not far from Ho Chi Minh City where 32,000 litres of Agent Orange that were spilled at an air base leaked into nearby Lake Bien Hung.

Now a placid pond shaded by willows in the middle of the town's most popular park, the lake remains heavily contaminated - sediment samples show dioxin at levels hundreds times what is safe. It teems with fish, but they are potentially deadly, so warning signs have been posted and 15 security guards work around the clock to keep people from catching them.

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