What does Bermuda do with Chemical Agents and Herbicides?
Secret “Agent Orange” Man
From Paradise to Purgatory
Ronald Slater served as an enlisted sailor at Kindley in the 1960’s. Now a retired helicopter flight instructor living in Cleelum, Washington, Slater told Bermuda’s The Royal Gazette that “every couple of weeks from 1965 to 1967 empty barrels of Agent Orange and other poisonous substances were poured into huge pits at the base, before I watched as they were set alight and thick fumes drifted over nearby homes in the immediate area”.
Agent Orange and “Super Orange” were the nicknames given to a herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S. military in its Herbicidal Warfare program during the Vietnam War from 1961-1971. The degradation of Agent Orange is known to release dioxins which have harmed the health of those exposed to them during the war in Vietnam. U.S. veterans obtained a $180 million settlement in 1984, most affected veterans receiving a one-time lump sum payment of $1,200. Chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange paid the money into a fund for United States veterans following the lawsuit. They did not, however, admit any wrongdoing.
Local minister of Works and Engineering in Bermuda Dennis Lister made a statement in the House of Assembly, Bermuda’s Parliament, that the matter had “come to his attention, and would be investigated”. He said in The Royal Gazette that; “The issues raised are serious enough that I have asked my technical officers to urgently research the claims and report their findings to me within two weeks.
“I would add that early discussions with the Ministry of health indicate that no trend towards illness as a result of such contaminants has been observed.
But to be safe we will fully examine these claims and keep the public generally and the people of St. David’s in particular, fully informed of our progress.”
St.David’s is the area of land in Bermuda which borders the former US Air Base which now serves as the national airport for Bermuda.
Many residents of this area claimed they often had to securely close all windows and doors to keep the poisonous fumes from invading their homes, while clothes they had hung out to dry became coated in filthy residue.
Mr. Slater says that he came forward because of guilt he has experienced due to the damage he has most likely done to Bermuda’s environment, and also to once again call attention to the dangers of Agent Orange, due to his own health problems which he feels are partly caused by his own exposure to the herbicide. He suffers from Type Two Diabetes, has a small tumor on his arm and a large growth on his kidney. 40 years ago things were much, much different for Ronald Slater.
He arrived in Bermuda in 1960 into what was an enlisted man’s dream theatre. Beautiful blue water, sun, sand and a slew of gorgeous local women who made themselves readily available to the handsome US sailors made it a virtual paradise for those who would do their tour of duty here. Mr. Slater liked one local woman in particular, in fact so much that he married her, and they have been together ever since. He says, “For over forty four years, my wife Edna and I have been married. She was born and raised in Bermuda and has been my greatest fortune. The island was my honeymoon for over seven years. My wife became the Seabee queen in 1961 and still has her crown, and Bermuda figure. Rejoice Bermuda, she was one of your finest works.” The disposal of Agent Orange, sadly, was not one of his.
The events surrounding the disposal of Agent Orange are still fresh in the mind of Mr. Slater. He recalls pouring the Agent Orange into pits dug out by bulldozer, then lighting it on fire after which it would continue to burn for several days. He states, “After it was burnt down, it would have a red-hot glow. I would take a bulldozer and go down the hill into the pits and bulldoze anything and everything left over right into the ocean. I did this about every other week.”
Mr. Slater recalls how much of the toxic weed killer would sink immediately into the limestone rock of which Bermuda is composed. “A lot of it would float”, he says, “but as it got more saturated, that would sink as well.”
Unfortunately due to the limestone composition of Bermuda, much of it may have found its way directly into the island’s fresh water supply, a good deal of which comes from underground water lenses More, because of the porous nature of limestone, may have seeped into the sea surrounding Bermuda, causing untold future problems for those who regularly consume the local fish, much of which is caught from shore by hand line or rod, not to mention the potential damage to Bermuda’s coral reef eco-system.
He says the powerful defoliant, was also sprayed on perimeter fences of the base to stop the growth of foliage which could act as a hiding place for anybody wanting to break in. He also believes many barrels were brought in from elsewhere as the Island was effectively used as a dumping ground. This statement is supported by the testimony of a former military colleague of Mr. Slater’s. He says that hazardous wastes including mercury and hydrochloric acid were routinely disposed of in a similar manner at Bermuda’s bases.
It’s difficult to know exactly what happened at Kindley Air Force Base for the close to 40 years that the American military were stationed there. It is clear however that the state of the land handed back to the Bermuda Government by the United States Government at both Kindley and Morgan’s Point, where the US Naval Annex was located, left much to be desired, and was the cause of heated discussions between the two countries.
Twelve years ago when the US military pulled out of Bermuda it was found that materials such as asbestos, lead, cadmium, hazardous waste including paint, batteries and oil, PCB chemicals, underground storage tanks (some corroded with their jet fuel seeping into the ground) and solid wastes had been dumped in underground caves and other convenient out-of-the-way places located on the two properties. One of the biggest talking points has been the presence of more than 500,000 gallons of viscous oil and sludge which seeped into Bassett’s cave at Morgan’s Point, and an adjacent Jet Fuel Plume comprising 55,000 gallons of fuel.
It was estimated the cost of cleaning up the toxic mess would be around US$65 million, however the Bermuda Government eventually settled for US$11 million.
Whether the dumping of these various toxic wastes has affected the health of Bermudians unfortunately cannot be known. However cancer rates in Bermuda are found to be generally higher than those in the United States. A study conducted by Frédéric Dallaire, MSc PhD and Eric Dewailly, MD PhD with the collaboration of Philippe Rouja, PhD for the Public Research Unit of Laval University released in 2006, found that; mouth, ovarian, melanoma, colon and rectum as well as breast cancer rates were higher in Bermuda.
Dr. Frederic Dellaire, said Bermuda had a 45 percent higher mortality rate for all cancer “sites” than the US and the mortality for prostrate cancer was 2.65 times higher in Bermuda despite a comparable incidence rate. Another key finding of the report was that 25 percent of all deaths in Bermuda were attributed to cancer in 2005.
Rather shocking is that the incidence of cancer continues to increase in Bermuda, unlike the United States where cancer rates are dropping, in spite of the overall healthier lifestyle of Bermudians.