Report: US Military Continues 'Toxic Burn Pits' in Afghanistan and Iraq

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Report: US Military Continues 'Toxic Burn Pits' in Afghanistan and Iraq

Audit: Military Using Potentially Harmful Methods of Burning Trash

by
Adam Levine

Air Force Senior Airman Frances Gavalis tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq. A new audit by the GAO shows how little regard is given to waste management on US Bases across their multiple theaters of war. The reports focus on the effects to US troops, but we also wonder about how this disregard effects the civilians of those countries. (Army Times / Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)

Washington (CNN) -- Military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan
continue to use waste methods that expose troops to potentially toxic
emissions without fully understanding the effects, according to a new
government audit obtained by CNN.

Between September 2009 and
October 2010, investigators from the Government Accountability Office
visited four bases in Iraq and reviewed planning documents on waste
disposal for bases in Afghanistan. None of the Iraq bases visited were
in compliance with military regulations. All four burned plastic --
which generates harmful emissions -- despite regulations against doing
so.

The emissions have been the source of controversy as troops
have complained about a host of problems, from cancerous tumors to
respiratory issues, blaming exposure to burn pits. Military officials
have denied any consequential effects on most troops.

The
military, the report concluded, has been slow in using alternatives and
has not considered the long-term costs of dealing with subsequent health
issues.

Prior to an initial outcry about the pits more two years
ago, the largest base in Iraq -- Balad Air Base -- was burning
everything from hazardous and medical waste to plastics, using jet fuel
as accelerant, according to military documents. The smoke poured over
the living quarters and the base hospital, exposing thousands of troops
to the emissions.

GAO investigators blame the continued burning
of prohibited items on the constraints of operating in a war zone,
limitations of resources and outdated agreements with waste disposal
contractors that do not include the latest regulations on what is safe
to burn.

The U.S. military generates about 10 pounds of
non-hazardous waste per service member each day and "may consist of
plastic, Styrofoam, and food from dining facilities; discarded
electronics; shipping materials such as wooden pallets and plastic wrap;
appliances; and other items such as mattresses, clothing, tires, metal
containers, and furniture," the report says.

According to the
report, there were 221 burn pits in Afghanistan by August and more are
anticipated. Only 21 remained in Iraq and, like the troop levels there,
the numbers are expected to decrease. The burn pits are operated by
either the military or contractors.

While the pits have been in
use since the beginning of each war, regulations and guidance were only
issued in 2009 -- eight years into the Afghanistan conflict and six
years after the start of the war in Iraq.

Incinerators and
recycling would make for a much safer environment, but to date there are
only 20 incinerators in Afghanistan and 41 in Iraq. Military officials
complained they "were expensive and posed acquisition, logistic, and
operational challenges," according to the report. However, the GAO
found that the Department of Defense has little understanding of that
cost.

"Our analysis determined that DOD has little information on
what it costs to procure, install, operate, and maintain incinerators
during contingency operations," said the report.

Additionally,
the GAO found that sorting of trash and recycling efforts are only
beginning in Iraq and have not been planned for in Afghanistan.

The
report notes that the 2009 directive for Afghanistan regarding waste
said while burning trash at the beginning of military operations is
understandable, "open burning will not be the regular method of solid
waste disposal."

A March 2010 military directive allows for
burning waste only if the commander determines there is no other
feasible method of waste disposal and petitions the Pentagon to do so.
GAO investigators noted that as of August 2010, no commander had
requested such permission. However, a senior military official told
investigators that "information gathered from field commanders led him
to conclude that disposal of prohibited items in burn pits had become
routine at many bases in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The military's
attitude about the impact of the burn pits has shifted. When complaints
initially arose in 2008 military officials denied there was any hazard
to troops. Last year the Pentagon changed that position, declaring
long-term effects for troops who had pre-existing conditions was
foreseeable.

Still, the military defends the pits as a necessity,
especially at many of the smaller combat outposts where more advanced
methods are not feasible or practical. In addition, military officials
told the GAO investigators that many of the supplies shipped to the
bases are made of or packaged in prohibited materials, creating a
greater burden in finding alternative methods to dispose of the
materials that continue to pile up.

On two of the bases visited,
waste management was handled by a contractor which did not abide by the
updated rules because their contract predated the new regulations. In
September 2009, the military tried to renegotiate with the contractor to
incorporate the more stringent disposal requirements, a process that
was ongoing the following summer.

"As of July 2010, DOD and the
contractor had yet to finalize this update because the contractor
believes the new guidance would require activities beyond the scope of
existing contracts that would result in additional costs, and therefore
should require a re-negotiation of those task orders," the GAO report
said.

Despite regulations by the U.S. Central Command to assess
pit emissions, U.S. forces in neither Iraq or Afghanistan have done so
in a comprehensive fashion, the GAO report stated.

"The health
impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood,
mainly because the military does not collect required data on emissions
or exposures from burn pits," according to the report.

"Thousands"
of samples have been collected by medical personnel, though military
officials said it is difficult to determine if the captured air is truly
from the burn pit or another source in the vicinity, like an industrial
site.

A GAO analysis of the data from the samples collected
found matter named on the CENTCOM list of potentially harmful
substances. Investigators found that the samples which exceeded the
levels considered safe if exposed for a year mostly contained fine
particles. Fine particles can embed in the lung tissue, and of
particular concern is when there is prolonged exposure.

Sen. Russ
Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who has been vocal in his concern about troops'
exposure to burn pits, urged the Pentagon to restrict the use of the
pits in Afghanistan.

"I am deeply troubled to learn that the
Defense Department has not taken simple steps, such as segregating
plastics, to ensure that our troops are not exposed to harmful
emissions," Feingold said in a statement released Friday.

The
acting commander of Central Command, Lt. Gen. John Allen, wrote a letter
to Feingold in July saying the military is trying to eliminate the use
of burn pits at bases that are active for 90 days or more and occupied
by 100 personnel or more. In Iraq, Allen anticipates there will be no
burn pits by December of this year. Afghanistan is more challenging,
but the military is in the process of procuring "almost 200
incinerators," he said in the letter, obtained by CNN.

The
military, Allen wrote, continues "to evaluate potential health outcomes
in Service Members who have deployed" and he promises an improvement in
air sampling collection.

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