‘Indefensible’: Report reveals extent of ‘burn pit’ pollution inhaled by US troops in Afghanistan
By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos
U.S. troops who risked their lives battling insurgents in Afghanistan for years faced another unseen enemy at bases across the country: toxic fumes from open-air “burn pits” that were used long after orders to phase them out.
A scathing new watchdog report details the extent of the “indefensible” practice. The report says the U.S. military even spent millions on incinerators as a trash-burning alternative, yet several of them did not work or were never turned on, wasting $20 million and leaving troops to breathe pollution from the burn pits instead.
“Given the fact that [the Department of Defense] has been aware for many years of the significant health risks associated with open-air burn pits, it is indefensible that U.S. military personnel, who are already at risk of serious injury and death when fighting the enemy, were put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions from the use of open-air burn pits,” John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), said in his findings.
The report coincides with a separate class-action lawsuit -- by hundreds of veterans who say they were sickened by exposure to burn pits over the course of the 13-year war -- that is moving closer to a trial.
That suit, lodged against private contractors KBR and its former parent company Halliburton Co., is headed back to U.S. District Court in Maryland after the U.S. Supreme Court declined in January to take up the defendants’ appeal for a dismissal.
KBR, which had a government contract to provide waste management on overseas bases, says it was not operating in Afghanistan during the period covered in the SIGAR investigation, and the company is not mentioned in the report. But the report’s strong words about the health hazards could bolster the arguments made by servicemembers who say their proximity to the burn pits resulted in protracted medical issues -- including asthma, acute respiratory illness, immunity disorders and even cancer.
“[The] IG report confirms what we have alleged in the lawsuit,” said Susan Burke, the lead attorney representing the veterans.
'No U.S. installation in Afghanistan has ever been in compliance'- SIGAR report
Neither the government nor KBR has acknowledged a link between the burn-pit emissions and long-term illness. DOD and Veterans Affairs (VA) officials contend that studies are ongoing. The VA recently opened an Airborne Hazards and Open Pit Registry for veterans to share their symptoms and experiences in hopes of learning more. However, on its website the VA states, “at this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems.”
According to Sopko, the pits burned a peak of 410 tons of solid waste a day throughout the war -- everything from vehicle parts, plastics and medical waste to prohibited hazardous materials like batteries and tires. The toxic brew created a black plume of smoke that lingered in the air over barracks and other common areas, soldiers have long reported. After returning veterans came to members of Congress complaining of health issues, new guidelines were passed in 2009 to phase out the burn pits on installations with more than 100 people starting in 2011. Incinerators were supposed to be moved in as a clean alternative.
It didn’t work out that way. According to the report, “[U.S. Central Command] officials told us that no U.S. installation in Afghanistan has ever been in compliance,” and SIGAR investigators personally witnessed the continued use of pits in the field through 2013.
The investigation was conducted from October 2012 to June 2014, at four out of the nine U.S. bases where incinerators were reportedly installed after 2010. SIGAR found that out of the $81.9 million taxpayers spent on 23 incinerators, $20.1 million was wasted because at least eight of them on those four sites were never used.
The report blames contractors hired by the military for faulty or incomplete installation of the incinerators. It also points a finger at DOD for paying contractors despite the fact incinerators were never turned on, or were left with deficiencies that prevented them from fully operating.
SIGAR found that at places like Camp Leatherneck, which housed an average of 20,000 people at any one time, “open-air burn pit operations continued on the base until October 2013, an additional 16 months” after four incinerators had been installed there.
Meanwhile, hundreds of veterans have joined the class-action lawsuit against KBR and Halliburton. Since 2001, KBR has held a stake in the multi-billion dollar contract with the Pentagon in both Afghanistan and Iraq to provide, in part, waste management and other services on U.S. bases.
The Texas-based company argues the suit should be dismissed because since the company was working on behalf of the U.S. military, which cannot be sued in U.S. district courts for command decisions in wartime, KBR is also exempt from such litigation.
Reached by FoxNews.com, officials at KBR stressed the company was out of Afghanistan by September 2010 and not connected to the specific base issues covered in the SIGAR report. “The report highlights the fact that the military had to make difficult decisions on waste disposal based on the complex war-time operational environment at the time,” KBR spokesman Richard Goins said.
Nevertheless, Burke claimed the report backed up lawsuit claims that the potentially harmful effects of burn-pit emissions were known long before attempts to shut them down. The class-action suit alleges KBR did not take proper precautions to mitigate the effects of the burn-pit emissions and in some cases, exacerbated them. KBR denies those charges, saying it consistently followed military guidelines.
“The health hazards, sadly, are all too clear to me,” said Burke, referring to her clients, a number of whom have been diagnosed with a rare condition called constrictive bronchiolitis, an irreversible scarring and inflammation of the lung’s smallest passageways that can occur with exposure to toxins.
Kelly Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Bergmann & Moore, a veterans’ disability law firm and advocacy group, said the importance of Thursday’s report could not be underestimated.
“The thing that stuck out at me was that they were clearly worried about the health effects of those exposed,” she told FoxNews.com, noting the government’s hesitancy to “own” the problem. “Now you have this report just slamming the military’s oversight on this. Across the board, they were handling it badly.”
KBR officials stressed there is no proven link between the burn pits and veterans’ illnesses, and accused opponents in the lawsuit of “overstating their case and misstating the facts.”
Calls to the Pentagon press office were not returned on Thursday. In a written response, Maj. General John Murray, deputy commander of support for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told the SIGAR, “the safety, of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Civilians is always our top priority.”
“Although this report clearly identifies areas for improvement, it does not fully account for the difficult and complex operational environment that led commanders to make some very difficult decisions.”
just like Vietnam- troops required to 'prove' that ailments resulted from the war...
America Might Have The Best Military, But It Keeps Losing Wars
by John Haltiwanger
The longest war in American history just ended.
Do you know anyone who fought in it? No?
Well, that explains why we lost it.
In other words, the ever-increasing disconnect between the public and the military is having a detrimental impact on America’s effectiveness in war.
When the public isn’t as connected with the military, it becomes more willing to send it off to war. Politicians and businesses have profited off this situation by sending American forces to fight in un-winnable, costly and lengthy conflicts.
Americans love the military. It’s the one institution that remains uncriticized by the public. Yet, by blindly supporting this entity, we have placed it in even greater danger.
We are doing our military a disservice by not thinking critically about the conflicts we send it to fight and die in.
The War in Afghanistan is formally over, but not in reality.The United States has the greatest fighting force in the world, but it has failed to achieve America’s larger strategic aims in the War on Terror.
After 13 years in Afghanistan, the Taliban is still alive and well. Technically, this war has now ended, but nearly 10,000 US troops will remain and continue to train Afghan forces.
The War in Afghanistan might be over in a formal capacity, but that doesn’t mean the violence there is over. Correspondingly, the ceremony held to signify the end of the war had to be held in secret due to the threat of Taliban strikes in Afghanistan’s capital. This is very telling.
Obviously, the War in Afghanistan isn’t really over when you can’t even publicly celebrate its supposed conclusion without getting attacked. Not to mention, two US soldiers were killed in Taliban attacks during the past month.
Similarly, with Iraq in complete shambles right now and ISIS posing a significant threat, one can hardly argue that the 2003 Iraq War was a success. In many ways, this conflict set the stage for the rise of ISIS. You reap what you sow.
Indeed, the War on Terror has been a $1.5 trillion failure.
Why has this war been such a complete and utter debacle? It’s complicated, but in many ways it’s related to the public’s relationship with the military.
Americans love the military, but aren’t connected to it.When the War in Afghanistan began back in 2001, a majority of the American public (80 percent) supported it. The same was true for the 2003 Iraq War (72 percent).
We didn’t ask any pressing questions about the motives behind these wars. One can hardly blame us for this in some ways. We were still grieving over the tragic events of 9/11. It seemed logical that we would attack governments with alleged connections to the perpetrators of those heinous attacks.
By the beginning of 2014, however, a majority of Americans stated that their country’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan had failed.
By the end of the Iraq conflict, we’d realized that the narrative of that tragic day had been hijacked to garner support for an unjust and needless war. Saddam Hussein had no connections with al-Qaeda, he didn’t even have Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
In Afghanistan, we spent years chasing Osama bin Laden, only to find and kill him in Pakistan. Not to mention, killing him has made no palpable difference. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban both live on, and we face a whole new series of threats with ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Africa.
Why do we support stupid and costly wars? Because the structure of our society and military makes it easy to.
Americans need to pay more attention to their military.The population of the United States is around 316 million people. The US military is currently 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.
In other words, the vast majority of Americans do not serve in the military and likely don’t even know someone who has.
As more and more US troops come home from Afghanistan, they will return to a public that has hardly any connection to them or the conflict they just fought in.
Likewise, as the US continues to rely on weaponry like drones, which require fewer troops on the ground, the prospect of war becomes even more attractive. When you can fight a seemingly costless war against an ostensible threat like terrorism, it’s not hard to get the public to support it.
When you can kill your enemies with the push of a button, war becomes more of a game than a violent reality, unless you’re on the receiving end.
Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans (65 percent) also support the use of drones and drone strikes. They do this in spite of the fact that drone strikes are arguably ineffective, illegal and immoral.
Thus, the US public needs to reevaluate the nature of its undying support for the military. This is not to say that we should stop commending those who have fought for the protection of their country. Yet, the US spends more on its military than any other country in the world. Its military is the most well-equipped fighting force in history. All the while, it keeps losing wars.
The reasons behind this are complex, and much of it has to do with behind-the-scenes political maneuvering as well as corporate interests. Long wars mean big profits for weapons manufacturers. It’s in their interests for the United States to go to war.
Accordingly, it’s in their interests for the US public to love and support the military whenever it goes to war, regardless of how senseless or imprudent the conflict may be.
As the United States continues its counterterrorism efforts and utilizes its military in various parts of the world, the public needs to demand greater accountability surrounding the use of force.
We have more of an influence than we might believe.
John Haltiwanger is the Political Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.
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