24 January 2016

Did USAF Decide to Save Money But Sacrifice Aircrews? Seems like it!

When C-23K Tail #362 ("Patches") was decontaminated at the USAF Museum, the cost for the commercial HAZMAT contractor was $60,000. A substantial sum!

Air Force paid that $60,000 because of everyone's overwhelming desire to keep the historical Patches in the Museum. The Air Force did not decontaminate any other C-123s. Faced with a potential $3.4 billion EPA illegal HAZMAT storage fine, in 2009 the Air Force opted to decontaminate by shredding and smelting all remaining aircraft at Davis-Monthan's Boneyard, turning them into aluminum blocks for the auto industry.

• Question
Since the Air Force knew the Agent Orange spray history of the ten or twelve former UC-123K spray birds as well as the results of the Conway report in 1979 (same year the Air Force Health Study began on Operation Ranch Hand veterans) why weren't all the airplanes properly decontaminated to protect aircrews and maintainers?

• Answers: 
1. Innocence and ignorance: In the '70s, there was growing concern about Agent Orange but little solid knowledge available to decision makers. Tests for deadly TCDD weren't even available in 1979 for the Conway report. Net result of the '79 test: (1) aircrew safety was assured (wrongly) and (2) aircrews were actually told the Air Force Material Command to continue scraping residue from nooks and crannies in the airplane, and to use air freshener to mask the nauseating stench, and scrub the C-123s with Dawn detergent. These steps all proved completely useless, as proven by the 1994 toxicological inspection of Patches that found it still "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health."
2. The end-of-life for the C-123 fleet was fast coming, and the Air Force was extremely hesitant to invest $60,000 for the couple years of remaining use of the transports.
3. Records vaguely suggest 24 UC-123K former Agent Orange spray birds were still in use by three squadrons. At $60,000 each, decontamination would cost the Air Force $1,400,000, plus it would take the airplanes out of service for an uncertain time.
4. The Big Reason*: if the Air Force moved to decontaminate the C-123s, it would be an announcement to the aircrews and maintainers that they'd already been exposed to deadly dioxin for several years. The illnesses and deaths of veterans between 1972 and whatever date a decontamination might occur would instantly have an association with Agent Orange exposure and veterans would apply to VA for disability benefits.

• Pound Wise-Penny Foolish!

Initially, the Air Force "saved" $1,400,000 by skipping the necessary decontamination of its C-123s. However, the June 2015 Interim Final Rule for C-123 veterans is estimated by the White House Office of Manpower and Budget to cost over $47,000,000 plus medical care. So the decision was a big money loser.

Worse, many of the two thousand men and women who volunteered to fly these aircraft now suffer the illnesses associated with long-term Agent Orange exposure. Although VA now might provide medical care and compensation, that is not worth cancers, heart disease, ALS, diabetes, soft tissue sarcoma and the other recognized Agent Orange illnesses.

* The Big Reason: a little background to prove the point:

In 2009 the Air Force was in turmoil about what to do with the toxic C-123s, known throughout the service as "the Agent Orange airplanes." The DOD consultant emphasized the potential for exposed veterans learning about their exposures and turning to the VA for earned benefits. Apparently this was something the Air Force felt best avoided, principally by destroying the surplus C-123s with as little visibility as possible.

Seeking Air Staff approval for the destruction, Air Force officials repeated the consultant's cautions, and as a result veterans did not learn for several years about the exposures they experienced in the 1972-1986 timeframe:
(from 505ACSS Position Paper, Mr. Buddy Boor, 5 Aug 2009)
The consultant is the same person named by Newsday (May 1 1985) who recommended all further testing on Agent Orange be discontinued:

 "White House scientist Alvin L. Young, a toxicologist, recommends that no further research on dioxin should be funded, "because research has failed to show it causes cancer or birth defects in humans."
Thankfully, his attempt to stop research on Agent Orange and its toxic component dioxin was not accepted, and over time a much fuller appreciation of the harm caused by Agent Orange developed.

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