A new investigative task force will “review and record reports from the community” on the use of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, DDT and Agent Orange on Guam, Sen. Fernando Esteves announced in a news release Jan. 10.
Esteves, who serves as vice-chairman of the Guam Legislature’s Committee on Health, will be joined on the task force by Sen. Dennis Rodriguez Jr., the committee's chairman, and Sen. Louisa Borja Muna.
The task force will reach out to the community, review records and compile recent research data, Esteves said, and will attempt "to correlate these environmental pollutants with an array of congenital health problems that plague our island.”
“For example, if certain diseases are attributed to specific hazardous constituents, then we want to correlate that with a mix of subjective and objective historical data about the surrounding area,” Esteves said. “Much work has been done over the years. ... It is our intention to bridge the various entities and compile their findings with ours.”
Due to small spikes in PCB contamination levels, the Coast Guard has begun the federal regulatory process for procuring a contract for environmental remediation service on Cocos Island. The Coast Guard hopes to begin physical remediation work of the area in 2017.
Story on PCB investigation:
Recent reports of use of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange at Andersen Air Force Base during the 1960s and 1970s has prompted Guam Del. Madeleine Bordallo to request a briefing from the military detailing the handling of Agent Orange at Andersen.
The request came after 68-year-old veteran Leroy Foster went public, saying he sprayed Agent Orange at Andersen. Shortly after that, local 72-year-old veteran Gerard Laitres detailed Agent Orange use he witnessed at Andersen.
According to Esteves, the task force will provide reports and data on Agent Orange to Bordallo, with the goal of ensuring “the federal government acknowledge its use, our community receive treatment and other rightful benefits, and the federal government properly cleans up contaminated sites.”
Esteves is aware efforts have been made in the past to gain recognition of Agent Orange use on Guam. Even if Bordallo’s push for action isn't carried forward in Congress, Esteves believes precedence for Guam exists based on similar situations in which the Department of Defense was found liable.
Specifically, he believes that the federal Formerly Utilized Defense Sites fund could provide funding for site cleanup and veteran compensation.
“If the congresswoman is ignored based on her inquiry alone, it is our intent to gather evidence to support our case. The people of Guam are within our right to take legal action,” Esteves said.
Ideally, Esteves said, he would like to see affected veterans receive just compensation, plus funding for site cleanup "and funding for a cancer treatment center so that our people don’t have to uplift their lives and move to the mainland for a chance at survival.”
Stories on alleged Agent Orange use:
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Florida, described three letters he recently sent, supporting the Agent Orange briefing and calling for action on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.
In a Jan. 9 statement, Ross said two of the letters ask House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry to “conduct briefings to look into multiple reports of Agent Orange exposure on Andersen Air Force Base in Guam during the Vietnam War.” Ross has requested the briefing about Agent Orange exposure on Guam be conducted by Jan. 17.
Because Guam isn't on the Department of Defense list of recognized Agent Orange sites, veterans who served there aren't eligible for expanded VA benefits for diseases and disabilities linked to Agent Orange exposure.
“If this toxic herbicide was used on a U.S. military installation, our nations’ service members and veterans deserve to know what they were exposed to,” Ross said in the statement.
Ross also called for House Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe to immediately consider H.R. 299, also known as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. Ross is co-sponsor of the act.
The act would provide presumptive Agent Orange exposure status to veterans who served in the waters off the coast of Vietnam, or “Blue Water veterans,” who suffer from Agent Orange-associated medical conditions.
The VA doesn't regularly grant Blue Water veterans benefits for Agent Orange-related conditions because they didn't actually set foot on Vietnam or serve aboard ships that fully operated inland.
The Blue Water act was originally introduced in the 114th Congress and gained 335 co-sponsors, but no committee meetings or votes on the bill were held, according to Ross’s statement.