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FYI Regarding Agent Orange

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  • FYI Regarding Agent Orange

    To All Hands-Please read carefully the latest on the Blue water Navy case concerning presumptive for Agent Orange Exposure in Vietnam. This is the law criteria for those filing VA Claims and the governments requirements to receive a successful grant.

    Please pass this onto your contacts.
    Sincerely,
    Scott McKee
    VFW ADSO

    From: Theresa Aldana [mailto:taldana@vfw.org] On Behalf Of Gerald T. Manar
    Sent: Thursday, April 24, 2008 7:54 AM
    To: PT
    Subject: NVS WEEKLY UPDATE - April 24, 2008

    Haas v. Nicholson (Blue water Navy and presumptive exposure to herbicides in Vietnam)

    While the Court of Appeals continues its consideration of the VA appeal in Haas v. Nicholson, VA has moved ahead to change its rules to clearly show that service in Vietnam, for purposes of presuming exposure to herbicides during the Vietnam war, is conceded only for those who actually set foot in Vietnam or were on board ships that operated in the inland waterways of Vietnam.

    As part of that process, on April 15, 2008, VA made final the revocation of certain provisions of M21-1 which suggested that receipt of a Vietnam Service Medal extended the presumption of exposure to herbicides. The manual precision is shown below.


    [Federal Register: April 15, 2008 (Volume 73, Number 73)]
    [Notices]
    [Page 20363-20365]
    From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]
    [DOCID:fr15ap08-151]

    DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS


    VA Adjudication Procedures Manual, M21-1; Rescission of Manual
    M21-1 Provisions Related to Exposure to Herbicides Based on Receipt of
    the Vietnam Service Medal

    AGENCY: Department of Veterans Affairs.

    SUMMARY: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rescinds provisions of
    its Adjudication Procedures Manual, M21-1 (Manual M21-1) that were
    found by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Veterans Court)
    not to have been properly rescinded.

    DATES: This rescission is effective April 15, 2008.

    SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: On November 27, 2007, we proposed to rescind
    certain provisions of our Manual M21-1. 72 FR 66218. The notice was
    necessitated by the opinion rendered by the Veterans Court in Haas v.
    Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 257 (2006). Although VA's appeal of that
    decision has been submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
    Federal Circuit (Federal Circuit), that court has not yet issued a
    decision in the case. The comment period has ended, and we now rescind
    the provisions.
    We received more than 75 comments, most of which were very similar
    and can be addressed in three categories: (1) Citation to scientific
    evidence, in particular a 2002 study performed for Australia's
    Queensland Health Scientific Services by their National Research Center
    for Environmental Toxicology, titled, Examination of the Potential
    Exposure of Royal Australian Navy Personnel to Polychlorinated
    Dibenzodioxins and Polychlorinated Dibenzofurans Via Drinking Water (the Australian study); (2) personal stories about the commenters' experiences during service and/or their current illnesses; and, (3) arguments presented in connection with the Haas litigation. We will address these three categories of comments,and then address a few additional comments that do not fit within these categories.

    Comments Based on Scientific Articles

    Several commenters suggested that rescission of the Manual M21-1 is
    inconsistent with scientific articles purportedly showing that
    herbicide exposure in offshore waters could have occurred by virtue of
    wind drift or consumption of drinking water distilled from estuarine
    waters. We make no change based on these comments for the reasons
    explained below.
    Several commenters cited the Australian study as proof that
    American military personnel on ships off the coast of Vietnam were
    exposed to herbicides in drinking water. The Australian study assumed
    that ocean water near estuarine sources could contain dioxin if dioxin
    had been used over adjacent land. It then noted that Australian Navy
    boats distilled water, obtained primarily from locations near such
    estuarine sources, to use as drinking water. Based on these factual
    predicates, the study found that the distillation process used by those
    boats did not remove dioxin when dioxin was added to salt water and the
    distillation process was performed in a laboratory, but, instead, the
    distillation concentrated the dioxin level in the water. The study was
    not peer reviewed or published and, to our knowledge, has never been
    cited in any subsequent reputable study concerning herbicide exposure.
    Even assuming that U.S. Navy ships used a distillation process to
    obtain drinking water from the ocean (VA has been unable to obtain
    official confirmation of this from the Department of Defense), VA's
    scientific experts have noted many problems with this study that
    caution against placing significant reliance on the study. In
    particular, the authors of the Australian study themselves noted that
    there was substantial uncertainty in their assumptions regarding the
    concentration of dioxin that may have been present in estuarine waters
    during the Vietnam War. Further, although distillation concentrated the
    dioxin level in the water, the concentrating effect was shown to depend
    upon the amount of sediment in the water, such that a large sediment
    level, consistent with estuarine waters, could significantly reduce the
    concentrating effect. Moreover, even with the concentrating effect
    found in the Australian study, the levels of exposure estimated in this
    study are not at all comparable to the exposures experienced by
    veterans who served on land where herbicides were applied. This is true
    even if we were to assume that a person drank only such distilled water
    and did so for an extended tour.
    A few commenters cited other studies that discuss generally the
    nature of air and water pollution, the manner in which certain
    pesticides can be borne by the wind, and the effect of water-borne
    pesticides on marine life. None of these studies bears significantly on
    the specific question whether herbicides used, and as administered, by
    the U.S. military during the Vietnam Era could have been blown by the
    wind into the ocean, or into inland waters that then carried the
    chemical into the ocean, to reach a boat offshore and result in any
    significant risk of herbicide exposure. Similarly, the studies do not
    suggest that if those herbicides could have been so transported, they
    could then be transmitted through a distillation process (assuming that
    one was used by U.S. ships) into drinking water, and then consumed by
    military personnel in any measurable quantity. One study merely
    indicated that Agent Orange is carcinogenic, a fact that VA does not
    dispute.
    Further, even if the studies show that herbicide exposure in
    offshore waters is possible in some circumstances, they do not provide
    a basis for maintaining a provision construed by the Veterans Court to
    impose a broad presumption of herbicide exposure based on receipt of
    the Vietnam Service Medal (VSM). The purpose of the presumption of
    herbicide exposure is to eliminate the need for case-by-case showings
    of exposure where there is a reasonable basis for presuming the fact.
    The possibility of exposure in certain circumstances of offshore
    service does not, in our view, establish a basis for presuming exposure
    in all circumstances involving offshore service or receipt of the VSM.
    In our view, the cited studies are of minimal relevance to the
    instant action for the additional reason that the M21-1 provisions were
    not intended to establish a substantive rule, but to implement the
    congressional intent underlying the statutory presumption of herbicide
    exposure in 38 U.S.C. 1116(f). The commenters do not suggest that
    Congress relied upon the cited studies in enacting Sec. 1116(f), but
    appear only to argue that the cited studies would independently support
    a presumption of herbicide exposure for veterans who served offshore.
    It is VA's policy not to issue substantive rules through its M21-1
    manual or other internal documents, but through notice-and-comment rule
    making and subsequent codification in the Code of Federal Regulations.
    Because the Veterans Court's conclusion that the M21-1 provisions
    established a substantive rule is inconsistent with VA's intent in
    issuing the M21-1 provision, VA is rescinding the M21-1 provisions. As
    stated in the notice of proposed rule making, VA will shortly issue a
    proposed revision to its governing regulation, 38 CFR 3.307(a)(6)(iii),
    to clarify our interpretation of 38 U.S.C. 1116(f). The issue of
    whether and to what extent the cited studies bear upon the
    congressional intent underlying Sec. 1116(f) is most appropriately
    dealt with in the context of that rulemaking.
    Additionally, we note that many VSM recipients did not even serve
    on ships off the shore of Vietnam. The VSM was awarded to all members
    of the Armed Forces who served between July 3, 1965, and March 28,
    1973, either: (1) in Vietnam and contiguous waters and airspace
    thereover; or (2) in Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia, or airspace
    thereover, in direct support of operations in Vietnam. See Army Reg.
    600-8-22, para. 2-13.). Clearly, the studies cited by commenters would
    not affect our decision as to veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, or
    Cambodia, or in airspace far above the jungles of Vietnam. If
    commenters relying on these studies believe the studies are relevant to
    the question whether Vietnam service should be extended to the waters
    off the shore of Vietnam, we direct readers to the revision of 38 CFR
    3.307(a)(6)(iii), which we expect will be proposed before May 2008, and
    which will directly address the requirement of service on land in
    Vietnam. For the foregoing reasons, the Australian study and the other
    studies cited by commenters do not cause us to alter our decision to
    rescind the Manual M21-1 provisions.
    Similar to the above category of comments, several commenters
    argued that there is no scientific basis for VA to take the position
    that veterans who served on ships were not exposed to herbicides during
    that service. These comments misunderstand the nature of VA's action.
    This action would not result in a finding or presumption that veterans
    who served on ships were not exposed to herbicides; it would merely
    clarify that such veterans are not automatically presumed to have been
    exposed and that the issue of exposure must be resolved on a case-by-
    case basis to the same extent as most other factual issues involved in claims for VA benefits.

    Comments Based on Personal Experience

    The second group of comments received related the personal
    experiences of veterans who suffer from cancer and other ailments that
    can be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. While we are sympathetic to
    the needs of these veterans, Congress has been quite clear that VA
    cannot presume exposure to herbicides simply because a veteran has a
    disease linked to exposure to herbicides. Again, section 1116(f) states
    that a veteran with such a disease is presumed exposed only if he
    ``served in the Republic of Vietnam.'' To the extent that these
    commenters seek relief in their own individual cases, these comments
    are beyond the scope of this notice. The issue presented here is
    whether VA should rescind a Manual M21-1 provision that the Veterans
    Court misinterpreted as requiring VA to presume exposure for any
    veteran who received the VSM.

    Comments Related to Haas Litigation

    The third category of comments received includes comments
    presenting the same statutory-interpretation arguments that have been
    presented to the Federal Circuit in the Haas litigation. These comments
    assert that the language of 38 U.S.C. 1116 plainly requires that
    offshore service be considered service ``in the Republic of Vietnam''
    for purposes of that statute. We do not agree. In its Haas opinion, the
    Veterans Court held that neither the language nor the legislative
    history of Sec. 1116 reflects a clear intent to treat offshore service
    as service ``in the Republic of Vietnam.'' Haas, 20 Vet. App. at 264-
    68. We therefore make no change based on these comments, but we note
    that this issue remains pending before the Federal Circuit.
    Additionally, some commenters suggested that VA, by this action,
    was usurping the power of the courts. We do not agree. VA has the legal
    right to engage in rulemaking and the legal obligation to interpret
    title 38, United States Code. As the Federal Circuit has held, the fact
    that a court has interpreted VA's regulations does not bar VA from
    later revising those regulations. See National Organization of
    Veterans' Advocates v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, 260 F.3d 1365,
    1373-74 (Fed. Cir. 2001). This action in no way usurps the court's
    authority to review our actions in this regard.

    Other Comments

    In addition to the categories of comments addressed above, we
    received the following specific comments. First, one commenter asked
    why the proposed rescission did not address ``any action [VA] may
    contemplate to sever service connection'' granted based upon the Manual
    M21-1 provisions. We have no plans to undertake such action. The same
    commenter asked whether a claimant who had been presumed exposed to
    herbicides based on the Manual M21-1 provision would now, post-
    rescission, not be presumed exposed if he filed a claim based on a new
    disease. VA has never interpreted the Manual M21-1 provision to require
    a presumption of service connection for every veteran who received the
    VSM. (In fact, this is precisely why VA denied Mr. Haas' claim.) That
    interpretation was made by the Veterans Court, not by VA. Therefore, if
    a veteran had been presumed exposed to herbicides before this
    rescission, it is because the evidence in his file, viewed as a whole,
    supported applying the presumption in the particular case.
    The same commenter added that if VA believes that other evidence
    besides the award of the VSM is relevant to a finding of service in
    Vietnam, then VA should identify such evidence. This comment is beyond
    the scope of this rescission, which simply removes from the Manual M21-
    1 a provision that required VA to consider the VSM in connection with a
    claim for a disability allegedly caused by herbicide exposure. In this
    regard, the commenter may wish to review and comment on our revision of
    38 CFR 3.307(a)(6)(iii).
    Another commenter stated that he ``can understand why blue water
    sailors [i.e., sailors who served off the coast of Vietnam] would be
    more closely scrutinized, but not automatically deemed ineligible.''
    Removal of the Manual M21-1 provisions would not render blue water
    sailors ineligible for benefits based on herbicide exposure. Such
    veterans could establish service connection for herbicide-related
    conditions by submission of evidence establishing exposure to
    herbicides during service, just as they always could. If a veteran is
    eligible for that presumption, then, as a result, VA will not further
    scrutinize that veteran's claim on the issue of exposure. We are
    rescinding this misinterpreted Manual M21-1 provision precisely
    because, like the commenter, VA believes that blue water veterans'
    claims must be subjected to greater scrutiny than claims by veterans
    who served on land. Blue water veterans who received the VSM can
    directly establish the fact of their exposure with evidence of contact
    with herbicides or evidence that they actually served on land.
    Several comments related to the exposure of veterans who served in
    Thailand, Cambodia and/or Laos. Persons who received the VSM could have
    served in these regions. However, because we have no confirmed evidence
    of the extent of the possible exposure of such persons to herbicides,
    and no statutory mandate to consider such persons to have been exposed,
    we make no change to our decision based on these comments.
    Based on the foregoing, VA rescinds the following manual provisions
    describing service in Vietnam for the purposes of the presumption of
    exposure to herbicides: M21-1, pt. III, para. 4.08(k)(1)-(2) (November
    8, 1991); M21-1, pt. III, para. 4.24(g)(1)-(2), change 23 (October 6,
    1993); M21-1, pt. III, para. 4.24(g)(1)-(2), change 41 (July 12, 1995);
    M21-1, pt. III, para. 4.24(g)(1)-(2), change 76 (June 1, 1999); M21-1,
    pt. III, para. 4.24(e)(1)-(2), change 88 (February 27, 2002).

    Approved: April 8, 2008.
    Gordon H. Mansfield,
    Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
    [FR Doc. E8-7912 Filed 4-14-08; 8:45 am]
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