At least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped at Apra Harbor en route to Vietnam more than 50 years ago, but there is no evidence that indicates the toxic cargo was offloaded on island, stated a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
However, the report does acknowledge, through various military records, that Agent Orange components 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were used on Guam in commercial herbicides. Herbicide 2,4,5-T is known to contain the cancer-causing contaminant 2,3,7,8-TCDD, and was banned in the 1980s due to its toxicity.
Agent Orange and other "tactical herbicides" were used to clear vegetation during the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
Draft environmental assessments written in 1999 and 2009 by Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific indicated that 2,4-D herbicides were present on Guam and 2,4,5-T herbicides were sprayed along power lines and substations for weed control. A 1969 master storage plan for the Naval Supply Depot included sketches of storage facilities for weed killers, according to the report.
Some veterans have claimed their illnesses stemmed from exposure to Agent Orange chemicals while serving on Guam, prompting members of Congress to seek an investigation.
While the GAO report did not confirm the herbicide was used or stored on island, a veterans advocate and attorney said confirmation of its chemical components and use of herbicides on island is basis enough to seek certain legal avenues.
"They may never be able to say that this was caused by Agent Orange. But they have said that there was definite herbicide spraying going on and they found component chemicals, which is what is causing the problem," said John Wells, a retired U.S. Navy commander turned attorney. "Whether we call it Agent Orange or 'x,' it doesn't matter at this point."
Wells said his organization, Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc., will now file a request for rulemaking with the Department of Veterans Affairs asking to grant benefits based on the GAO report. The group also is pursuing new legislation in the 116th Congress to establish a presumption of herbicide exposure for veterans serving on Guam, Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and the Johnston Island atoll, Wells said.
Not what was hoped for
While the report does more to help than hurt veterans, it is not the smoking gun they were hoping for, Wells added.
For veteran Brian Moyer, who has been pushing for acknowledgement of herbicide exposure on Guam, the report is a disappointment.
"Evidence that we presented isn't showing up anywhere in the report. I presented them pictures of myself and other Marines going up Mt. Tenjo, where the Navy admitted to spraying in the Guam Land Use Plan book," Moyer said.
The GAO stated that it received photographs and written statements from veterans alleging the presence of Agent Orange on Guam, but could not substantiate the claims. Veterans described spraying herbicides at Andersen Air Force Base, as well as burning contaminated fuel as part of firefighter training.
Department of Defense records indicate that tactical herbicides were not authorized for use on land owned or managed as military installations, the GAO report stated. But commercial herbicides were widely available for use at these sites, it added.
Around February 1968, the SS Gulf Shipper stopped at Apra Harbor en route to Vietnam. It contained barrels of Agents Orange, Blue and White. However, log books don't indicate whether the cargo was offloaded and the GAO was unsuccessful in locating other information about the ship.
"If DOD is able to produce record for commercial herbicides, that should have been destroyed under the record-keeping protocol, where are records for tactical herbicides? ... (The report) is inconclusive. ... DOD hasn't proven that Agent Orange was not on Guam and that is my position," Moyer said.
His confidence now lies with ongoing soil testing, which is being conducted by the Guam Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with federal counterparts.
Tests are looking for traces of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in various off-base areas on island. However, there are significant challenges when testing for herbicides years after their reported use.
The components degrade rapidly under normal conditions, the GAO stated. Initial testing within Andersen Air Force Base yielded inconclusive results.
TCDD will last longer in soil than herbicide components but even if detected, the contamination could come from sources other than Agent Orange. For this reason, the initial testing did not look for TCDD, according to the GAO report.
By the same logic, it would also be difficult to say whether positive results for 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T came from tactical herbicides or commercial herbicides, as the components were used in both. 2,4-D is used today.
Both DOD and U.S. EPA officials questioned the ability of testing within Andersen to confirm or deny the presence of Agent Orange, according to the GAO.
However, DOD officials proceeded with the initial testing to address concerns from veterans and the public, the GAO added.
Under the same challenges, Guam EPA stated it would continue with its current testing to address concerns and comply with a directive from the governor. Testing for TCDD will take place based on screening levels for 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.
One of the final aspects of the GAO report is accuracy with DOD reporting on Agent Orange.
"Without a reliable list with complete and accurate information and a formal process for DOD and VA to coordinate on communicating this information, veterans and the public do not have quality information about the full extent of locations where Agent Orange was present and where exposure could potentially have occurred," it stated.
The GAO provided six recommendations:
- The DOD should ensure its list of Agent Orange test and storage locations are as complete as possible;
- The DOD should develop a process to update the existing list;
- The DOD should develop transparent criteria for what constitutes a location that should be included in this list;
- The Department of Veterans Affairs, with DOD, should also develop such criteria;
- The DOD should develop a formal process for coordinating how best to communicate information to veterans and the public about where Agent Orange was known to be present outside Vietnam; and
- The VA, with DOD, should also develop such a process.
While these are good, they come about 30 years too late, Wells stated.