From Homebush to Hanoi: A local history of Agent Orange

As it turns out, the defoliated mangrove wetlands of Vietnam have something in common with the mangrove swamps that line the banks of the Parramatta River.

Photography by Ellie Stephenson

These days, wandering along the Rhodes foreshore is a pleasant affair. There are newly built luxury apartments, cafes filled with enthusiastic brunchers, and a long esplanade following the shoreline, well-frequented by prams and puppies. As you cross the architectural pedestrian bridge from Rhodes to Wentworth Point, it’s difficult to imagine that the waterway below you was once one of the most polluted former industrial sites on the planet. 

The cruel history of Agent Orange 

Throughout the 1960s, the United States Air Force brought human and ecological disaster to Vietnam with Operation Ranch Hand, in which millions of gallons of herbicides — most notably Agent Orange — were sprayed over forests and farmland. The mass defoliation of Vietnamese land attempted to improve observation of insurgent forces in forested areas, and to destroy Vietnamese cropland.

The destruction wrought by this military strategy has permeated the long term, as carcinogenic dioxins entered Vietnamese environmental systems. The herbicides used in Operation Ranch Hand have been implicated in decades of illness and disability among Vietnamese people. 

The ecological impacts of Operation Ranch Hand are less clear, because of a paucity of research into the long-term impacts of herbicide use on Vietnam’s flora and fauna. However, ongoing contamination of the natural environment has been identified, with elevated levels of dioxins found in aquatic and land animals, and in soil samples.

The unleashing of American ecological warfare on Vietnam continues to leave deep scars on the country.

But this military history likely seems abstract to most Australians. Although Australia participated in America’s imperialist war in Vietnam, Operation Ranch Hand was an American invention. For those of us who have not personally been affected by dioxin poisoning, the deployment of Agent Orange is tragic, but remote. 

As it turns out, the defoliated mangrove wetlands of Vietnam have something in common with the mangrove swamps that line the banks of the Parramatta River. 

The aquatic ecosystem of Homebush Bay has also faced contamination with dioxins. In fact, this slice of Sydney Harbour is no stranger to Agent Orange. 

Sydney’s polluted swampland

Homebush Bay is home to the Parramatta River’s largest remaining intertidal wetlands. Its mangrove forests shelter migratory birds. The endangered Green and Golden Bell Frog has also been observed there.

Yet, the area has a dense industrial history and is far from pristine. Homebush Bay was home to an abattoir, brickworks, and armament depot. An ecological study performed by the NSW Government Olympic Co-ordination Authority between 1993 and 1995 describes gross pollution throughout the site, and recounts that artificial wetlands had formed over disused landfill and industrial sites.

The Rhodes Peninsula lies on the eastern side of the Bay. For most of the twentieth century, between 1928 and 1986, Rhodes’ views of the Bay were enjoyed by manufacturers of various chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and plastics.

In the second half of its lifetime, the site was used by the American chemical giant Union Carbide, a corporation whose Indian division infamously oversaw the Bhopal gas disaster, which injured hundreds of thousands of people.

In Sydney, Union Carbide Australia used the Rhodes site to manufacture two chemical components of Agent Orange, which at the time of the Vietnam War was a highly profitable enterprise.

Dioxins made their way into Homebush Bay’s soil and groundwater through a number of processes: reclamation of swampland used contaminated soil, contaminated wastewater and stormwater were released into the Bay, and lax regulation of chemical storage also contributed to the problem.

The clean-up 

My mother has been collecting recipes in a battered blue binder since she was a teenager. On the binder is a sticker that always caught my eye as a child: a skull and crossbones accompanied with the words ‘Clean Up Homebush Bay!’ 

Mum got the sticker after a Greenpeace investigation into dioxin poisoning in Homebush Bay. She tells me, “It was a big thing pre-Olympics when I was in about Year 11 from memory.” 

The sticker in question.

Unsurprisingly, as Homebush Bay was thrust onto the international stage following Sydney’s successful bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, the extent of its environmental degradation received newfound attention. 

This put into motion a decades-long clean-up effort aimed at decontaminating and remediating the area.

A spokesperson from the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) explained the decontamination process to Honi. 

The process began in the early 2000s with the NSW Government and other landowners planning the clean-up, which was conducted over six years, starting in 2005, by Thiess Ltd. 

“Soils and sediments were treated using a technology called thermal desorption which separated organic contaminants from soils and then destroyed them using heat. The treated soils were replaced at the site,” the spokesperson said.

“The clean-up was the largest undertaken in Australia with over half a million tonnes of contaminated soil and sediments treated at the site.  Some residual contamination remains in Homebush Bay sediments and specially engineered soil ‘encapsulation cells’ on the peninsula.”

In 2010, the NSW Government declared that Homebush Bay was safe to swim in (technically, anyway) in terms of the levels of dioxins in its waters.

However, the legacy of Union Carbide’s polluting Agent Orange production will not be totally absent from Sydney Harbour for decades. Dioxins have worked their way into aquatic sediment, and spread beyond Homebush Bay.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2010 that dioxins had been found more than 10 kilometres upstream and downstream of the Rhodes Peninsula, including around Rozelle and further up the Parramatta River. 

The government testing confirmed that these dioxins can be traced back to the Union Carbide factory, as the samples contained the specific combination of chemicals manufactured at Rhodes.

This area of contamination is too large for remediation efforts to occur, with the government instead opting to wait until sediment covers the contaminated area. Until that occurs — which could be several decades away — fish and crustaceans will continue to absorb dioxins, making it unsafe to consume fish caught west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Dioxins have been found several kilometres up and downstream of Rhodes. (Photo: Ellie Stephenson)

Lessons from Union Carbide

This pervasive ecological connection between Sydney’s waterways and the Vietnam War are illustrative.

Most pertinently, the mass contamination of land tells a story of the ecological destruction that comes with conflict. Nature is a silenced casualty of war. While warzones face the brunt of destruction of land and biodiversity, degradation transcends the battlefront, poisoning land and hydrological systems around the world. 

The stake of corporations in this destruction cannot be ignored. Companies like Union Carbide reaped enormous profits from the volume of chemicals deployed in the Vietnam War. Yet Union Carbide simply departed Australia without ever being compelled to clean up the mess they left behind. 

Sometimes, the ecological connection is also a human one. In the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, Boi Huyen Ngo writes of the “haunting” of her family, Vietnamese migrants to Western Sydney, by the spectre of Agent Orange in their new homeland:

“Their migration experience traces a circular history of toxicity in which Agent Orange (as well as being manufactured in the USA) was also manufactured in Australia, released in Vietnam and contaminated Australia and Vietnam. The result is contamination in Australia, in Vietnam, and in the human bodies that inhabit both geopolitical spaces.” 

We should not respond to ongoing presence — ecological, social, and spiritual — of dioxins in Sydney’s waterways passively. The flow of contamination through the Parramatta River is also an intertemporal flow, a long-present reminder of the perversity of past warfare. As we wait for time to slowly bury the contaminated river bed, we should think about how warmongering in the present might linger in our systems into the future.