IG: Toxic Burn Pits Still Burning Hell

Despite new rules put into place by Congress in 2009 prohibiting the use of open air trash-burning pits on U.S overseas bases — yes, the same pits that countless numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and their doctors, say have caused irreparable harm to their health  — an inspector general’s (SIGAR) report released today say they are still in commission at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.

Camp Leatherneck is in Helmand Province and has been a launching pad for Marine expeditionary forces and other American servicemembers and contractors since 2008. As recently as 2012  it was the temporary home for some 18,000 at one time — which means a lot of people have been exposed to the huge smouldering pit there. Today, as Camp Leatherneck is  dismantling ahead of withdrawal, it houses about 13,500 U.S military and civilian personnel, according to the letter to U.S Central Command from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko, dated July 11.

Ah, the burn pits, again. Photo credit: Department of Defense
Ah, the burn pits, again. Photo credit: Department of Defense

In that letter, Sopko says the Camp Leatherneck actually spent $11.5 million in taxpayer money to purchase and install two 12-ton and two 24-ton capacity incinerators for clean burning (what the bases were supposed to be doing in the wake of the 2009 legislation). Best let Sopko explain in his own words the rest:

My inspectors made several visits to the camp and found that the 12-ton incinerators were not being used to full capacity and the 24-ton incinerators were not being used at all because a contract for their operation and maintenance had not been awarded. As a result, the camp was relying heavily on open-air burn pit operations to dispose of its solid waste. However, Department of Defense guidance and a U.S. Central Command regulation limit the use of open-air burn pit operations. Camp Leatherneck is in violation of this guidance and regulation.

Camp officials advised that they are planning to eventually use all four incinerators and are looking into the feasibility of contracting to have any excess solid waste hauled to a local landfill. In mid-June 2013, my office was notified that a contract was about to be awarded for operating and maintaining the two 24-ton incinerators and that a contract for hauling trash off-site should be in place by the end of July 2013.

These are positive steps toward the cessation of open-burn pit operations. However, if the base incinerators were used to their full capacity,hauling trash off-site may not be necessary.

Bottom line, the IG’s report found that Camp Leatherneck was violating the new Department of Defense regulations passed in 2009 and furthermore “as a result, possible long-term health risks to the camp’s personnel continue.”

This is a bold statement, considering that the DoD has been dancing around the issue of whether the burn pits are causing health problems for years. We here have documented much of their two-stepping, plus a lot of new funny business with how the VA has been surveying troops coming home with issues ranging from asthma to lung lesions. Doctors who have done lung biopsies on returning vets say they they have have toxic exposure. Others have gone public with their belief that the pits are blame. Yet more and more we hear these reports of bases taking half-baked measures to shut the monsters down — and we’re playing for the privilege! In April we reported another IG report on Camp Salerno, where their two $5 million incinerators have not only gone unused, but are now rotting in place.

Congress has managed to pass a requirement that the VA start collecting information on sick vets for a Burn Pit Registry (the VA initially resisted such a registry, but now is seeking comment and providing details). Soon we may see the repercussions of the Pentagon not taking these risks on U.S bases so seriously.


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