When the United States military began leaving Afghanistan, they left a nasty surprise for departing American soldiers: health risks from open-air burn pits. A damning report released late last week by SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, says the incinerators and burn pits were “indefensible” and led to thousands of troops, contractors, and Afghan civilians unnecessarily inhaling toxic fumes.
“Given the fact that DOD 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,” said SIGAR’s inspector general, John F. Sopko. He called the persistent use of burn pits in spite of ongoing concerns “disturbing.”
In a separate class-action lawsuit, now moving closer to trial in U.S. district court in Maryland, hundreds of veterans allege sickness due to exposure to the burn pits. Veterans participating in the suit, filed against contractor KBR and its former parent company Halliburton, claim to have lung damage caused by exposure to the burn pits, which were operated by the contractors.
The veterans contend that their proximity to the pits also resulted in long-term medical issues, including asthma, acute respiratory illness, immunity disorders, and even cancer. A dozen veterans have also been diagnosed with a rare condition called constrictive bronchiolitis, a scarring and inflammation of the lung’s smallest passageways that develops with exposure to environmental toxins or in lung-transplant patients.
While the SIGAR report blames contractors hired by the military for poor planning, design, and management of burn pits and incinerators, it doesn’t explicitly name KBR, which has claimed it had left Afghanistan by September 2010, before the investigation began in 2012. The contractor has also insisted that because it was working on behalf of the U.S. government, which cannot be sued in district courts for military activities, it is not liable. In January, however, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the defendants’ appeal for a dismissal.
In October, the Veterans Affairs agency opened an online Airborne Hazards and Open Pit Registry, which allows veterans to share their burn-pit symptoms and experiences; so far, over 30,000 people have enrolled in the registry, according to the VA. But neither the government nor KBR has acknowledged a clear link between the burn-pit emissions and long-term illness.
Richard Goins, a KBR spokesman, told Fox News, “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.”
Last month, Fast Company’s E.B. Boyd reported on the pullout from Afghanistan; her story reported on burn pits being used at two installations to dispose of excess materiel.
Despite concerns about burn pits dating back to Vietnam, they continued to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq because they “provided an easy answer.” Contractors used them to burn as much as 410 tons of solid waste a day during the war, from vehicle parts to Styrofoam to computers to unexploded ordnance and medical waste, at times leaving plumes of black smoke lingering above barracks areas. After soldiers returned home with health concerns, new guidelines were passed in 2009, which sought to phase out the burn pits and replace them with incinerators beginning in 2011.
But the phaseout didn’t happen as planned. “No U.S. installation in Afghanistan has ever been in compliance,” according to the report, which said that investigators witnessed the continued use of pits in the field through 2013. SIGAR, a government entity created to document and prevent waste and wrongful use of American taxpayer money in Afghan reconstruction, alleges the Defense Department spent more than $20 million on eight incinerators that were never used, and turned a blind eye as bases used open-air burn pits to dispose of toxic items such as batteries and tires.
At Camp Leatherneck, for instance, where an average of 20,000 people lived 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, according to SIGAR inspections. Due to the possibility of the Taliban using U.S. equipment left on the ground after departure, materials were burned even more frequently in recent months and years.
At the Al Asad airbase in Iraq, the burn pit was located a few hundred yards from the dining hall. “I don’t know what the fuck we’re burning,” Jason Dawson, a Marine turned contractor who worked there between 2006 and 2009, told War is Boring. “I know there is composite materials out here, I know there’s tungsten and aircraft parts. There was a half an F-18 out there. People would throw trash on it and light it on fire.”
Sopko, a former prosecutor who has investigated mismanagement and waste in America’s wars, has also raised concerns over the Pentagon’s recent decision to make much of its current Afghanistan budget classified, out of apparent fears the data could aid the enemy. “The decision leaves SIGAR for the first time in six years unable to publicly report on most of the U.S. taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain” Afghan forces, Sopko wrote in a separate quarterly report released in January.
In his report on the burn pits, he wrote, “All of these situations point to the need for DOD to pay far greater attention to its solid waste management needs before the next contingency” and “do a better job of holding contractors accountable.” Taxpayers, Sopko said, “deserve better than what they received for the money spent on incinerators in Afghanistan.”