Agent Orange:

Actions Needed to Improve Accuracy and Communication of Information on Testing and Storage Locations

GAO-19-24: Published: Nov 15, 2018. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2018.

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Contact:

Brian J. Lepore
(202) 512-4523
leporeb@gao.gov

 

J. Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War era may be eligible for disability compensation.

We examined how the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs communicated information to veterans and the public about possible Agent Orange exposure. Specifically, we looked at information about where Agent Orange had been tested, distributed, or stored in U.S. states and territories. We found that VA's website listing of locations outside of Vietnam where veterans may have been exposed is inaccurate and incomplete.

We made 6 recommendations to improve DOD and VA communication about Agent Orange.

Drums of Agent Orange were marked with destination information and an orange band

Photos show the top of a drum with transportation and contract data and orange-banded drums stacked on pallets for shipment by sea.

Photos show the top of a drum with transportation and contract data and orange-banded drums stacked on pallets for shipment by sea.

Multimedia:

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Brian J. Lepore
(202) 512-4523
leporeb@gao.gov

 

J. Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Available shipment documentation indicates that nearly all of the Agent Orange procured was either used in U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia, used for testing, damaged, or destroyed. However, some records are incomplete, such as shipment documentation and logbooks that identify ports where vessels stopped on the way to Southeast Asia. GAO obtained and reviewed shipment documentation for over 12.1 million of the 13.9 million gallons of Agent Orange procured by the Department of Defense (DOD). GAO reviewed logbooks for 96 percent (152 of 158) of those shipments and identified that vessels stopped at various ports on the way to Southeast Asia, including at least one vessel carrying Agent Orange that stopped at Guam. While the logbooks GAO reviewed identify when vessels left various ports as they traveled to and from Vietnam, they do not show whether and how much cargo was loaded or unloaded at those ports.

DOD's official list of herbicide testing and storage locations outside of Vietnam that is posted on the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) website is inaccurate and incomplete. For example, the list lacks clarity in descriptive information and omits both testing and storage locations and additional time periods covered by testing events. Also, the list has not been updated in over a decade, though DOD and VA have obtained reports on its shortcomings since 2006. Both DOD and VA communicate with veterans in response to inquiries about Agent Orange, but some veterans GAO met with expressed confusion regarding how to obtain information on potential exposure. DOD officials acknowledged this confusion and stated that veterans are contacting multiple agencies to obtain such information. However, DOD and VA have not established a formal process for coordinating on how best to communicate information to veterans and the public regarding the presence of Agent Orange outside of Vietnam. 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.

Challenges exist with testing for Agent Orange today due to degradation of the herbicide's two chemical components and a potential for sources of contamination other than the herbicide. According to scientific research, the half-life (average time for components to decrease by half of the original amount) of Agent Orange's two chemical components—n-butyl 2,4-D and n-butyl 2,4,5-T— in soil can range from several days to many months, depending on conditions. The suggested half-life of the dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD—a by-product of the 2,4,5-T manufacturing process—is much longer, but there are multiple sources of dioxins, including the burning of wood and waste. DOD and the U.S. and Guam Environmental Protection Agencies are testing for the acid form of the components of Agent Orange at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. While acknowledging the low probability of conclusively identifying the components of Agent Orange on Guam, DOD has made a decision to move forward with testing to address veterans' and the public's concerns, and it expects to complete the updates for the sampling and analysis plan, field sampling, analysis, and reporting in early 2019.

Why GAO Did This Study

The tactical herbicide Agent Orange was first produced in 1964, and some 12 million gallons were shipped from U.S. ports to Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1970. DOD suspended its use in 1970 and incinerated remaining stockpiles at sea in 1977. Congress has expressed long-standing interest in the effects of Agent Orange exposure.

The House report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 included a provision that GAO review the government's handling of Agent Orange on Guam. This report examines (1) information the federal government has about the procurement, distribution, use, and disposition of Agent Orange; (2) DOD and VA efforts to make information about where Agent Orange and its components were tested and stored available; and (3) challenges associated with Agent Orange testing. GAO reviewed agency policies, documents, and available archival records that GAO identified; interviewed DOD, VA, and other agency officials; and met with a non-generalizable sample of 38 veterans and a veterans service organization.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that DOD develop a process for updating its list of Agent Orange testing and storage locations, and that DOD and VA develop a process for coordinating the communication of information on where Agent Orange was known to have been present. DOD concurred with four recommendations. VA concurred with one recommendation and non-concurred with one recommendation.

For more information, contact Brian Lepore at (202) 512-4523 or leporeb@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) concurred with GAO's recommendation and said that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (USD (A&S)) would assign responsibility for DOD's list of locations where Agent Orange or its components-- referred to as tactical herbicides-- were tested or stored. In April 2019, the USD (A&S) issued a memo that assigned the Armed Forces Pest Management Board (AFPMB) responsibility for compiling, maintaining, and updating the DOD tactical herbicide list. The memo further stated that the tactical herbicide list would be developed using criteria that were under development with the Department of Veterans Affairs and that the AFPMB would be responsible for coordinating with the military services on evaluation of any new information that meets the criteria for inclusion on the list.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment assigns responsibility for ensuring that DOD's list of locations where Agent Orange or its components were tested and stored is as complete and accurate as available records allow. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) concurred with GAO's recommendation and said that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment would develop a process to update the DOD list based on clear and transparent criteria developed with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In April 2019, DOD assigned the Armed Forces Pest Management Board (AFPMB) with responsibility for coordinating with the military services in evaluating any new information that meets the criteria for including a site on DOD's list of locations where Agent Orange or its components were tested or stored. In December 2019, DOD reported that its information update process document was being reviewed within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. As of January 2020, the process document had not been finalized. . In April 2020, DOD provided GAO a copy of its process document for updating the 2019 DOD list of locations where tactical herbicides were used, stored, and tested outside of Vietnam. This document outlines the steps that the AFPMB will take to assess documentation submitted from all sources or discovered through internal research to determine if the documentation meets the criteria for placement of a location on DOD's list of tactical herbicide locations. The AFPMB will also search archival records seeking additional information to validate the documentation submitted. If DOD finds additional information that satisfies the criteria, DOD will add the location and date to the DOD list and notify VA to update the list of locations it maintains on the public VA website. If DOD does not find additional information or the additional information does not meet the criteria, DOD will archive the documentation in the AFPMB tactical herbicides information repository and no further action will be taken. DOD stated that the AFPMB will review the DOD list of locations annually to ensure changes made during the previous year have been accurately incorporated. DOD also said that it has posted the criteria, the process, the locations that were added and removed in the 2019 list, and contact information for the AFPMB on the Board's webpage, which DOD identifies as its portal for submission of new information for DOD to evaluate.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment develops a process for updating the revised list as new information becomes available. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) concurred with GAO's recommendation and stated that it would be the lead agency for searching, reviewing, and validating documentation to identify DOD locations where the development of chemicals for military use in controlling vegetation and crops in tactical situations were developed, tested, used, or stored. DOD also stated that, in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it would develop clear and transparent criteria for what constitutes a location for the list that would be provided to the VA. In October 2019, DOD provided GAO a document that identifies the four criteria for placing locations on the list of places where Agent Orange was present outside of Vietnam. According to this document, in order for locations and dates to be included on the 2019 DOD list, they must meet the following four criteria: (1) appropriate documentation; (2) relevant location; (3) relevant herbicides and their active ingredients; and (4) relevant types of testing, application, or storage. Further, in the August 6, 2019, DOD provided a letter to VA that transmitted the list of locations where tactical herbicides and their components were tested, used, and stored outside of Vietnam, DOD stated that the criteria for including locations on the list were developed by the joint DOD and VA Herbicide Orange Working Group (HOWG). This working group effort indicates that the Secretary of Defense collaborated with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop the criteria, which meets the intent of GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, should develop clear and transparent criteria for what constitutes a location that should be included on the list of testing and storage locations. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) non-concurred with GAO's recommendation, stating that it did not agree to be the lead on this recommendation. VA did note that it would support the Department of Defense (DOD) as the lead, given that DOD chairs the Herbicide Orange Working Group (HOWG) and has sole access to the information on storage, transport, and usage of Agent Orange. In follow-on updates in 2019, VA reiterated that it non-concurred and would not be providing a status update. However, in DOD's August 6, 2019, letter to VA transmitting the list of locations where tactical herbicides and their components were tested, used, and stored outside of Vietnam, DOD stated that the criteria for including locations on the list were developed by the joint DOD and VA HOWG. This working group effort indicates that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs collaborated with the Secretary of Defense to develop the criteria. Further, in its response to GAO's recommendations related to development of a joint communication plan, VA stated in September 2019 that it had received the updated DOD list that was developed in collaboration with VA. Thus, GAO believes that VA has met the intent of GAO's recommendation through these collaborative actions with DOD.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in collaboration with the Secretary of Defense, should develop clear and transparent criteria for what constitutes a location that should be included on the list of testing and storage locations. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) concurred with GAO's recommendation and stated that DOD will be the lead agency for producing and updating the list of locations, whereas the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will be the lead agency in providing information to veterans regarding Agent Orange. According to DOD officials, VA will provide information to and coordinate with DOD on development of a communication plan, and DOD will develop guidance for DOD employees on directing inquiries from veterans and their families regarding Agent Orange back to VA. In December 2019, DOD reported that it has been working with VA on the joint communication process document and that the document was nearly completed. In January 2020, DOD stated that VA and DOD were in the process of coordinating on a joint press release that would announce the new list of tactical herbicide locations. DOD expected the press release would come out by the end of the month. In April 2020, DOD provided GAO a copy of the joint communication plan that it had developed with VA to provide veterans and the public with an overview of the issues, key messages and communication activities, and materials related to release of updated locations where Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides were tested, used, and stored by the U.S. military, outside of Vietnam. This plan includes a question-and-answer section in which DOD and VA considered the most likely questions they would receive and then jointly developed responses to those questions to ensure that both agencies would be communicating the facts. DOD said that it had also developed a separate DOD-only plan to assist the department in responding to expected questions directed at DOD, with Guam as the primary focus since it was in the spotlight at the time of GAO's report. However, DOD stated that it would forward a question to VA if the answer needed to come from that agency.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense, in collaboration with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, should develop a formal process for coordinating on how best to communicate information to veterans and the public regarding where Agent Orange was known to have been present outside of Vietnam. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported that VA and the Department of Defense (DOD) met in December 2018 to discuss the recommendation to develop a formal process for coordination on how best to communicate information to veterans and the public regarding where Agent Orange was known to have been present outside of Vietnam. In May 2019, VA stated that it had recently, in collaboration with DOD's Armed Forces Pest Management Board (AFPMB), completed the criteria for what constitutes a location where tactical herbicides or their components were tested and stored. Additionally, in April 2019, VA sent a formal letter to the Assistant Secretary for Defense for Sustainment requesting the list of locations. Following this letter, VA officials met with the AFPMB in May 2019 to discuss timelines for getting the list, the transition of a key staff member from AFPMB, and the communication plan. According to the officials, VA has identified a lead communication expert from the Veterans Benefits Administration and has a draft plan of action on communications that will be launched when the list of locations is received from the AFPMB. In November 2019, VA stated that it had received the updated DOD list that was developed in collaboration with VA and said it continues to work with DOD to resolve potential regulatory issues with the list. VA noted that it had developed a communication action plan and stated that it was working toward implementing it in December 2019. This plan will include: 1) use of social media; 2) a press release; 3) targeted direct mail to Veteran Service Organizations; 4) fact sheets for leaders; and 5) an updated website. However, as of January 2020, the communication action plan had not yet been implemented. In March 2020, VA stated that the updated list was released to the public and Congress on January 27, 2020, and the communication plan was completed. VA said that the communication plan was designed to inform veterans about DOD's updated list of locations where Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides or their components were used or tested. The plan includes a press release that was jointly created with DOD, information for Veterans Service Organizations, a Congressional notification letter, websites, social media and blog content, a newsletter article, and fact sheets. VA provided GAO a copy of the joint communication plan and links to information that is now available on the VA website.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in collaboration with the Secretary of Defense, should develop a formal process for coordinating on how best to communicate information to veterans and the public regarding where Agent Orange was known to have been present outside of Vietnam. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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