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Report: Open-air burn pits still in use in Afghanistan

Jul. 22, 2014 - 05:24PM   |  
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Two incinerators at a joint Afghan-U.S. airbase have been underused, needlessly exposing troops to toxic pollution generated from open-air burn pits still in operation, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has found.

According to the inspector general, or SIGAR, the U.S. paid $775,000 for two incinerators at Shindand Airbase, which were to be used to handle most waste disposal at the facility.

But in 2012, a U.S. Forces Afghanistan inquiry found the incinerators were operating at reduced capacity, taking in only about 35 percent of the U.S.-generated solid waste, while the rest — including toxic materials like batteries and plastics — was dumped into Afghan-run burn pits.

U.S. forces continued to send their solid waste to the burn pits until June 2013, while the Afghan military continued to use burn pits until October, according to SIGAR.

A 2011 U.S. Central Command policy requires that incinerators or another trash-disposal method must be operational at bases with more than 100 troops.

Shindand is home to roughly 4,000 U.S. and Afghan troops as well as numerous contractors and civilians.

The report is the fourth from SIGAR criticizing the U.S. military’s waste management programs in Afghanistan. In April 2013, SIGAR found that construction deficiencies and a maintenance dispute over two incinerators at Forward Operating Base Salerno rendered the units unusable at a cost of $5.4 million to the U.S. government.

In July 2013, SIGAR John Sopko found that trash incinerators costing $11.5 million at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, were underused or not used at all.

And in December, SIGAR reported that the U.S. paid $5.4 million for two never-used trash incinerators at Forward Operating Base Sharana in eastern Afghanistan.

The Shindand Airbase incinerators were part of a $4.4 million waste disposal contract at the base. SIGAR found that when they were built and transferred to the Afghan military in August 2012, they were ready for operation, but the Afghans favored burn pits because they were cheaper to run.

After the transfer, the U.S. military continued sending its solid waste to the Afghan-run burn pits, including prohibited items like batteries and plastics in violation of Defense Department policy and the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which required DoD to notify Congress if it became necessary to use burn pits.

Sopko urged U.S. Central Command to investigate the problems.

“[You] should determine which official or officials were responsible for these decisions and identify what steps will be taken to hold them accountable,” Sopko wrote.

In a response to the report, Duane Rackley of the U.S. Central Command Inspector General’s Office said DoD would conduct an investigation.

He disputed one recommendation, however: that DoD figure out who was responsible for the decision to allow the Afghans to continue using burn pits when incinerators were available, and hold them accountable.

“[This] does not accurately represent either the operating environment or the status of the relationship between Afghan and coalition forces,” Rackley wrote.

Burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere produce large amounts of smoke and gas and are considered a potential health hazard by many, although scientific data has not proven their long-term health consequences.

Hundreds of troops have reported medical problems they believe are related to living and working near the pits, from rare pulmonary diseases and unexplained rashes to cancer.

The Veterans Affairs Department has established a registry of affected troops to study the extent of the health consequences of open-air burn pits.

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