Former U.S. Army soldier Steve House has reason to be nervous.
"Thirty-three years is a long time," said House when CBS 5 Investigates caught up with him at Phoenix-Sky Harbor International Airport as we prepared to embark on a fact-finding mission to South Korea.
The last time House was in South Korea, he says he secretly buried a deadly toxin on a U.S. military base. And he's well aware of how many unsuspecting soldiers and Koreans might have been exposed. But he wants to make things right with his long-overdue homecoming.
The Korean media has covered this story fervently since CBS 5 Investigates broke the story in May, and there were dozens of journalists waiting for House at the airport in South Korea when his plane landed.
"A lot of the feelings come back," House said, his voice choking with the emotion that has lain dormant for more than three decades.
House's confession and our investigation triggered an international controversy - one that could ultimately affect the United States' relationship with ally South Korea.
For the last three months, protesters have taken to the streets outside Camp Carroll Army Base in Daegu, South Korea, where three helipads sit on the alleged burial site. Banners criticizing the U.S. surround the installation.
A joint investigative team of high-ranking U.S. military and Korean officials has been testing the soil and water on and around the base for months. What was found? Dioxins, the most toxic part of Agent Orange that has been tied to cancer and child deformities.
But the U.S. Army denies the dioxins it found are linked to Agent Orange.
The water off the base was found to be contaminated with potent industrial solvents. As a result, at least one well was sealed off.
The Army emphasized to CBS 5 the off-base well was actually tested and closed by the Republic of Korea forces, even though the Army and ROK are working together on the general investigation.
And for the first time, the military admitted burying more than 100 different toxic chemicals, pesticides and defoliants in 1978. We're told those toxins and 60 tons of soil were dug up and removed the following year, although there is no record.
The moment Steve House has wanted, but also dreaded for so long is finally here. He studies a map of the area while surrounded by two dozen U.S. and South Korean officials. And in just 20 minutes, it's over. The veteran who flew all the way across the world to identify the exact spot where he says he buried Agent Orange is not allowed to walk the heliport or even given time to acclimate, after having not been on the base for three decades.
House tells CBS 5 Investigates that the military won't find remnants of Agent Orange where they are currently digging. He says they are looking in the wrong spot.
"He did provide additional information on a location where he claims to have made a trench that Agent Orange was buried," said Army Col. Joseph Birchmeier, who heads the joint investigation team looking into the Agent Orange claim.
He tells CBS 5 Investigates that since House's visit, the Army plans to dig in the new location House identified.
"If we could make that claim that (it) did not happen, the investigation would no longer be proceeding," said Birchmeier. "So we're not prepared at this point to say the allegation is untrue or didn't happen."
In fact, for nearly 20 years the U.S. military was aware this base was contaminated, but kept quiet, according to the military's own reports.
The military has been under pressure to release these reports since CBS 5 Investigates started investigating. One of those reports reveals there were numerous chemical spills on the base during the late 1970s. And two military studies show that there was "widespread contamination of the aquifer throughout the base." Cleanup would have cost $93.8 million.
"You're right, there's no indication that we notified the Korean government or the Korean people about that, and I can't really speak to as why it occurred," Birchmeier says.
But for one veteran, the time for answers has passed. Now he says, is the time for action.
"Now I have to live with what they're finding downstream," House says.
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