Earlier today, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing on the use of burn pits for trash at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan – a practice that may be exposing thousands of soldiers and civilians to carcinogens, respiratory irritants, and neurotoxins. A particularly large burn pit at the Balad Air Base in Iraq has been getting a lot of attention, but the use of burn pits seems to be widespread at these military bases.
As DPC Chair Senator Byron Dorgan pointed out in his opening remarks, burn pits are the kind of thing you’d expect to see at a makeshift base, not at the major military installations that we’ve built in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six or seven years. (Senator Dorgan noted that the Balad Air Base houses 20,000 troops and has “good paved roads, two large swimming pools with diving wells, two PX’s that look like huge American-style supermarkets, five mess halls, and a full-service movie theater complete with a Dolby surround sound system.”) Witness Anthony Szema, MD, Chief of the Allergy Section at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, NY, explained to the committee that bases should replace burn pits with incinerators as quickly as possible because incinerators burn trash at higher temperatures and thus create far less harmful smoke.
Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis, Ph.D., P.E. (Ret.), a former bioenvironmental engineer with the US Air Force, testified that while he was stationed at the Balad Air Base, he worked with members of the Army’s Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (CHPPM) on conducting air sampling. He expressed concerns that the sampling was not accurately capturing the burn pit’s smoke plume, which shifted frequently with the winds, but CHPPM used the results to publish a risk assessment stating that “adverse health risks are unlikely.” The Department of Defense has relied on this report to conclude that “long-term health effects are not expected to occur from breathing the smoke” at Balad Air base. Lt. Col. Curtis and the other witnesses had a very different assessment of the situation, though.
More than a year prior to the publication of the CHPPM study, Lt. Col. Curtis wrote a report warning that the Balad burn pit posed an acute health hazard, with the possibility of long-term health hazards, for exposed individuals. “The smoke hazards [at Balad] are associated with burning plastics, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, POL products, non-medical waste, some metals, some chemicals (paints, solvents, etc.), and incomplete combustion by-products,” he explained. He hoped that by notifying Air Force and Army officials about the problem, he could help hasten the construction of incinerators – and in the meantime, all he could do for the servicemembers complaining of headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems was to tell them that their exposure would be included in their medical records.
Incinerator construction doesn’t seem to be a priority, though. Rick Lamberth, a former KBR employee and Army reservist who has served at various sites in Iraq and Afghanistan in both military and civilian capacities, noted that KBR is responsible for waste management under its Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) contract, but he has watched KBR personnel flout the rules on waste disposal:
While working for KBR, I witnessed KBR employees dump nuclear, biological, chemical decontamination materials and bio-medical waste, plastics, oil and tires into burn pits in direct violation of military regulations, federal guidelines, and the LOGCAP contract Statement of Work. …
Under the LOGCAP contract, waste disposal by private contractors must comply with Army regulations, federal EPA, and the Defense Logistics Agency’s regulations for waste and hazmat removal and disposal. The contract states that work must comply with federal, state, and local requirements concerning hazard identification and control activities. These activities include surveys, hazard assessments, training, medical monitoring, worker protection, occupant notification, and proper solid waste disposal. Army regulations require that waste management at Army installations outside the continental United States must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. These regulations require that facilities be designed, operated, and maintained so as to protect the health and safety of service members, family members, civilian work force, and contractors. Solid waste management at these facilities must be in accordance with the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) as well as all applicable regulations and requirements of the EPA.
The LOGCAP contract Statement of Work outlined more specifically how waste was to be handled at military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The LOGCAP Statement of Work explicitly conforms to Army Technical Bulletin 593 (Guidelines for Field Waste Management), which allows for the use of burn pits “only in emergency situations until approved incinerators can be obtained.” Additionally, the Statement of Work further provides that any surface burning or “burn pits” must minimize the environmental effects on the base camp. It also requires that the “contractor shall minimize any type of smoke exposures to the camp population.” Certain hazardous waste materials are specifically prohibited from being disposed of in burn pits, including PCBs and nuclear, medical and biological waste. Guidelines also prohibit disposal of petroleum, oils, solvents and lubricants in burn pits.
Senator Dorgan emphasized – and other Senators echoed – that Congress has so far failed in its responsibility to oversee work by KBR and other military contractors. Such a lack of oversight not only costs taxpayers money; more importantly, it also has implications for the health of thousands of servicemembers and civilians stationed at military bases. The DPC lacks the authority to conduct such oversight, so Senator Dorgan recommends the creation of a body similar to the Truman Commission. (See this article by DC Bureau’s Adam Lichtenheld for more on what Congress ought to be doing.)
For soldiers and civilians sickened after exposures to toxic substances on military bases, getting compensation is an uphill struggle. Rick Lamberth has “suffered from shortness of breath, spit up bloody mucus, skin rashes, and … been diagnosed with a non-organic sleeping order” since returning from Iraq and has sought treatment from the VA – but the VA has claimed that his conditions existed prior to service, even though a pre-deployment physical found no health problems. L. Russell Keith, a former KBR medic who served at Balad for more than a year, now exhibits the signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s, and his doctor’s opinion is that the atypical nature of his neurological problems (namely, occurring on only one side of his body and at a younger age than usual) suggests that they are due to exposure to toxins. Mr. Keith has filed for compensation under the Defense Base Act, but KBR has fought it and the appeals process is likely to continue for many more months. In the meantime, he cannot work and is without health insurance. He’s quickly burning through his savings to pay for medical treatment.
In short: KBR is failing to comply with the terms of its contract and Congress is failing to exercise appropriate oversight. Those serving at Balad and other bases with similar burn pits are exposed to a host of toxic substances, and when they develop health problems that are likely related to their service they struggle to get treatment and compensation. It’s wrong on many levels, but there’s very little happening to fix it.
UPDATE: The National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama includes provisions related to the use of burn pits, including a prohibition on their use for hazardous and medical waste unless the Secretary of Defense sees no alternative.