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The U.S. military dumped some 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on about a quarter of former South Vietnam from 1962 to 1971.

The defoliant decimated about 5 million acres of forest — roughly the size of Massachusetts — and another 500,000 acres of crops.

Although Washington remains a vocal critic of Vietnam’s human rights record, it also views the country as a key ally in its push to re-engage militarily in the Asia-Pacific region.

Blight on relationship

The Agent Orange issue has continued to blight the U.S.-Vietnam relationship because dioxin can linger in soils and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations, entering the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense and the United States now plan to excavate 2.6 million cubic feet of soil from the airport and heat it to a high temperature in storage tanks until the dioxin is removed. The project is expected to be completed in four years.

Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Washington-based Aspen Institute, said Thursday’s start of the cleanup “marks the coming together of our two countries to achieve a practical solution to dioxin contamination.”

His organization coordinates the U.S-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, which connects prominent American and Vietnamese scientists, health experts and former officials.

The group in May said that $450 million is needed to clean up dioxin hot spots, provide services to people with disabilities and repair damaged landscapes across Vietnam over the next five years.

The United States is rolling out a $9 million project to address disabilities in Vietnam through 2015, but Washington continues to dispute Vietnam’s claim that dioxin has caused health problems there.

A plan that Vietnam’s government released in June lays out goals for dealing with Agent Orange but does not give a price tag.

Every penny counts for Nguyen Thi Hien, who directs three rehabilitation and vocational training centers for 150 children and young adults with disabilities in Danang on a budget of roughly $5,000 per month.

The children, busy drawing and making plastic flowers that are sold to raise funds, suffer from a range of physical and mental ailments that Mr. Hien says are linked to dioxin.

Vo Duoc, the steel salesman, will travel to the capital, Hanoi, next month to receive treatment for his diabetes. But he said he is more concerned about what will happen to his six grandchildren, who have not yet been tested for dioxin.

“They had nothing to do with the war,” Mr. Duoc said. “But I live in fear that they’ll test positive like me.”