Chemicals in the Playground: Unearthed barrels causing concern for military members with children

Dioxin. . . . Defoliant. . . . Agent Orange. . . . You don’t really need a firm grasp on what these things are or what they do to the human body to dislike the idea of having them in your back yard. That being said some military families with school children at Bob Hope Primary and Amelia Earheart Intermediate Schools on Kadena Air Base raised an eyebrow when they stumbled upon this image:

The image, posted on December 23 2013 by Heather Bowser on the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance website, outlines the location of the above mentioned schools, playgrounds and the areas where Dow Chemical Company barrels were unearthed. (You can read the article here.) Although I do not know very much about COVVHA, what they do or how they operate there is a very important statement that they make in the article: “Have you heard of the discovery?”

This image was posted just about a week ago but the story is quite literally old news. In fact the story broke shortly after the barrels were uncovered in June of 2013, roughly 6 months before this image was posted on the COVVHA website. The story wasn’t a secret either. It was covered by major Japanese news outlets including the English language Japan Times and the English version of the local paper called the Ryukyu Shimpo. The story was also picked up by the Stars and Stripes an American military newspaper.

With all the coverage that the story received through both Japanese and American media it may be hard to believe that some seem to be oblivious to a situation which was unfolding just a short walk from where their children go to school. I believe, however, that stories like this are easily lost within the shuffle of families in and out of Okinawa eventually becoming conveniently swept under the rug. Even within the  years that I have been on this island I have seen examples of this multiple times. People end up PCSing out, management changes and ground shaking events end up as though they never happened at all.

Knowing how easy it is for some things to get lost in transition I wanted to pull together a post with some basic facts about and related to the unearthing of these barrels as it is clear that so many were unaware of this situation (and in some cases are even skeptical of the fact that it is a real story).

The first thing that is important to understand about this situation is that this is something that did in fact happen. About 6 months ago in June of 2013 a number of barrels labeled “Dow Chemicals” were unearthed in a field outside the fence line of Kadena Air Base not far from the above mentioned schools. The barrels, which at one time contained chemicals, were buried in the field which was part of Kadena Air Base in the early 80’s. In the late 80’s the area where the barrels were recovered was returned to Okinawa and at some point between then and 2007 to 2008 started being purposed as a soccer field used by both Japanese and American children. (Note: I say 07 or 08 because it was during that time frame that I worked on those fields during children’s soccer games. I do not know the function of the field before that time frame although I do know that it was just recently that the construction on the field began.)

The barrels being labeled “Dow Chemicals” is a concern for many because Dow Chemical Company is the company which was responsible during the time period of Vietnam for creating chemicals including Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used during Vietnam at which time Okinawa was a major staging point and it is believed by many US Military veterans that Agent Orange was not only stored in Okinawa but used here as well. Some US Military veterans have even gone so far as to produce photographs of themselves here in Okinawa in the presence of barrels of Agent Orange. Regrettably the US Government denies that any such chemicals were stored and/or used here in Okinawa. This directly contradicts those testimonies of the veterans.

Aside from the testimonies from veterans there have also been researchers who have discovered extremely high levels of dioxins in mongoose who inhabit various parts of Okinawa. Some feel that this support the notion that these chemicals were not only stored and used in Okinawa but also have lasting effects.

With concerned parents looking for answers naturally some questions made their way to the Kadena Air Base Facebook Page where the Public Relations department responded thusly:

“. . . . let me stress the health and safety of everyone at Kadena Air Base is the number one concern of Kadena leadership, and that is especially true for our children. If there was a concern, action would have been taken and you would be fully aware of what we are doing and why.” 

This statement confuses me. If the “health and safety of everyone at Kadena Air Base is the number one concern of Kadena leadership” than why did it take 6 months and a concerned parent’s post on a Facebook page for the issue to be addressed. Furthermore how is the unearthing of barrels which once contained chemicals, regardless what type they were, not a concern which would warrant action of which the residents of Kadena Air Base would be “fully aware of what was going on and why”. The response continues:

“The base leadership and schools are aware of the drums excavated near the installation and the local survey that was conducted. The Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight is tasked to monitor the quality of water to which all DoD members and dependents consume. BE ensures high quality drinking water by collecting monthly samples throughout the distribution system, to include Bob Hope Elementary School and Amelia Earheart Intermediate School, which were in close proximity to the excavated barrels. BE also collect quarterly Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance samples that evaluates chemical and radiological levels within the water. Our drinking water meets EPA’s compliance levels. Results are published annually in the Kadena Air Base Consumer Confidence Report.” 

The people at the Public Relations department seem to be very clear that regular tests of the base’s drinking water supply are tested and in compliance with the EPA but I can’t help ask the question whether or not the ground water or soil was tested after the discovery of these barrels. After all it is not the drinking water children splash around in when they are playing in the school yard, it’s the runoff from the hill where these barrels were located.

“Leadership at Kadena Air Base and other agencies will take appropriate measures in accordance with DoD policy should we become aware of any potential substantial impact to human health and safety. If you have any questions about your water quality, please feel free to contact Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight. In the meantime we continue to work with Okinawa City on the issue, and will continue to protect the health and well-being of our base populace.” 

Again I find myself confused, particularly by the word “potential”. I find it hard to believe that unearthing over 20 barrels which once contained chemicals doesn’t fall into the category of “potential” impact on human health and safety. I can’t help but wonder what degree of danger needs to be posed before action is taken to ensure the unconditional safety and well-being of our military’s children.



2 thoughts on “Chemicals in the Playground: Unearthed barrels causing concern for military members with children

  1. The questions and thought of questioning I would pose to DOD/Gov concerning this particular incident is this.
    Given what appears to be a real unearthing of the evidentry list, the recognized benefits Veterans are currently recieving, firstly, is there a liability limit to risk ratio the DOD operates by? And secondly, by DODs own standard of discovery, as our pursuit to find evidence else where seems quite liberal, why would this standard of investigation apply. Regardless of lost/ misplaced documentation, it would seem to me if the tables were turned, feet would burn and litmus test failed.

  2. Pingback: OkiNinjaKitty | Chemicals in the Playground – Part 2: Commander raises more questions than he answers

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