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Retired GI who helped unearth chemicals saw no evidence of Agent Orange

SEOUL — A preventive medicine specialist who collected samples from barrels of chemicals dug up at Camp Carroll in 1979 said he knows of no evidence that Agent Orange was buried there a year earlier.

Furthermore, retired Sgt. 1st Class John Sipkens said none of the drums he saw had standard markings for Agent Orange, and no one he has spoken to regarding the testing ever mentioned the chemical, which was used widely during the Vietnam War.

Sipkens, who spoke to Stars and Stripes earlier this week, said he believes whoever ordered the mass burial of the chemicals in 1978 was probably taking “the easy way out” to avoid dealing with the large amounts of paperwork required to dispose of hazardous materials. 

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“I don’t think they were trying to hide anything from the Korean government,” he said. “I think they were just trying to clean out the warehouse and make it disappear.”

Sipkens’ comments come as the U.S. and South Korea are widening their investigation into the possible burial of the chemical at Camp Carroll, a tiny base about 20 miles from Daegu. The investigation began two weeks ago after three former soldiers told a Phoenix television station that they buried barrels of the toxic chemical at the camp in 1978.

One of the former soldiers told the TV station that some of the drums he buried were labeled “Province of Vietnam, Compound Orange.”

But Sipkens, who said between 10 and 15 people were involved in the six- to nine-month process of removing and identifying the materials in 1979, said he didn’t see any barrels with such labels unearthed at the site. He also said he did not see any drums that were typically used to store Agent Orange. Those barrels, he said, were olive drab green with a distinctive bright orange band around the middle.

Some of the chemicals were clearly labeled when they were removed from the ground, he said. Others, however, were found in containers so deteriorated that their markings were illegible.

Sipkens said samples he took of the unidentified materials were sent to Camp Zama in Japan for analysis. He did not see the results of those tests, but said he has spoken with people who did.

“Never in any of the conversations was there any admission of Agent Orange, or in anything I’ve heard to this date,” he said.

Officials from South Korea’s Ministry of Defense and Prime Minister’s office said they were unaware of Sipkens’ story.

Sipkens said he has not been interviewed by U.S. Forces Korea, but was contacted last week by someone working for a general officer in South Korea and asked to provide a statement about his involvement in the 1979 dig.

In that statement, which was provided to Stars and Stripes, Sipkens said the team of soldiers that unearthed the chemicals used the best protective masks and chemical suits available because they knew the materials were hazardous.

“There were drums of liquid,” he wrote, adding that he did not know what happened to the chemicals after they were removed but believed they were disposed of outside South Korea. “However, in 1979 Agent Orange did not have the meaning to soldiers that it has today.”

Lt. Col. Jeff Buczkowski, an 8th Army spokesman, said the military is still trying to determine what happened to the chemicals after they were removed from Carroll.

In a telephone interview, Sipken said a junior officer — whom he identified as 1st Lt. Scott Rowden — learned about the burial in 1979 and ordered the chemicals to be removed. Rowden declined to speak with Stars and Stripes when contacted at his home in Kentucky this week, directing queries to the 8th Army public affairs office.

The U.S. and South Korea have agreed to work together on an investigation of the issue.

The U.S. military does not know if Agent Orange was buried at Camp Carroll, but said this week that a 1992 study showed that a “large amount” of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals were removed from Carroll in 1979 and 1980, along with 40 to 60 tons of soil, and disposed of outside the base.

Tests conducted at Camp Carroll in 2004 found only trace amounts of dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, in one of 13 test bore holes drilled at the site, officials said. The small amount of the chemical posed no threat to human health, they said. The military also used ground-penetrating radar to search the area. 

The U.S. will use ground-penetrating radar equipment at Carroll next week to determine if anything is still buried there, Buczkowski said.

“We have to assure ourselves and the Americans and Koreans that live and work in and around Camp Carroll that we are taking all the steps necessary to insure their safety,” he said.

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