Lawmakers move to protect American troops from toxic materials in war zones

Defense authorizers are prohibiting the use of uncovered pits to burn waste in conflict zones.

The move comes after more than 400 people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said they got sick from exposure to toxic materials.

ADVERTISEMENT
Most large U.S. military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan have uncovered pits to dispose of and burn waste.

However, one such giant pit at the largest base in Iraq has garnered the most attention, as critics fear that soldiers, contractors and Iraqis have been exposed to cancer-causing dioxins, arsenic, carbon monoxide and hazardous medical waste.

Several lawsuits have been filed across the country against KBR Inc., a former subsidiary of Halliburton, for wrongful death and toxic exposure. KBR operates the pits in the war zones. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton’s CEO before he became President Bush’s running mate in 2000.

Plaintiffs want KBR to cover the costs of medical monitoring, future medical expenses and other damages. KBR has denied any liability.

The 2010 defense authorization bill contains provisions that would prohibit the use of uncovered pits to dispose of hazardous materials unless the Secretary of Defense sees no alternative disposal method.  The provisions in the bill don’t outright ban the use of uncovered pits, but seek to restrict their use and add oversight.

The Secretary of Defense, however, has to justify to lawmakers why there is no alternative to the use of open-air pits. Every six months, the secretary would be required to report to the congressional oversight committees on the status of the uncovered pits.

The provisions in the massive Pentagon policy bill are derived from stand-alone legislation introduced by Reps. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) earlier this year.  The provisions were included in the bill after months of negotiations and pressure from veterans groups.

Meanwhile, at the behest of Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D), the Inspector General for the Department of Defense is investigating whether actions by the Army and KBR exposed Oregon National Guard troops to a harmful carcinogen in Iraq in 2003. 

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) has been compiling a national database of sicknesses related to exposure to burn pits. More than 415 people have contacted DAV to say they believe they are sick from exposure to the pits, citing illnesses such as leukemia, lymphoma, brain cancer and pulmonary disorders. Apart from DAV two other highly visible groups-- the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the National Guard Association—have backed the legislation sponsored by Bishop and Shea-Porter.

To date, the Department of Defense has maintained that burn pits pose no long-term health risks. But Shira Kramer, an epidemiologist, said at the congressional press conference earlier this summer that there is a strong link between burning toxic materials and disease and sickness in humans.

At Joint Base Balad in Iraq, the central logistics hub for the U.S. military in that country, a giant pit was for more than four years the only place to dispose of trash, including plastics, food and medical waste. The pit was spewing acrid smoke over the base, including its housing and hospital. Now three incinerators have been installed.

The provisions in the 2010 defense policy bill require the Department of Defense to develop a plan of alternatives to uncovered pits in order to eventually eliminate them. The Pentagon also has to report to Congress how and why the pits are used and what burns in them. Also, Congress is asking the Pentagon to study the results of burning plastics in open pits and evaluate whether it can prohibit burning in such fashion.