U.S. troops burned waste in hazardous open pits while safer incinerators sat idle

Defense Department violated its own regulations and federal law in allowing the smoky fires near its troops in Afghanistan



An Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked U.S. armored military vehicles, as smoke rises from a fire in a trash burn pit at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2011. 

Simon Klingert/AP

Bobby Elesky, who worked as a civilian Defense Department contractor at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan from January 2004 until February 2005, recalls the smelly, smoky burn pit there being the size of nearly three football fields.

Trash would be thrown in as the evenings approached, he recalled in a phone conversation, and then burn and smolder through the next day. "Everything got thrown in there," he said. "Tires, batteries, plastic water bottles. Even complete vehicles."

The U.S. military knew the burn pits at its Afghan bases posed health risks to its personnel, and spent more than $20 million building incinerators meant to dispose of the mountains of trash being produced by its soldiers in the country every day: 440 tons at the height of the surge.

But many of the incinerators were defective and never operated, and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan flouted federal law and military regulations for four years by burning hazardous waste, such as batteries and aerosol cans, in the open pits near military personnel, according to a scathing new federal audit of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and civilians were stationed at the four bases inspected for the report, where burn pits were used as recently as October 2013. At Shindand Airbase in western Afghanistan, for example, about 360 truckloads of the U.S. military’s solid waste were burned in open pits between November 2012 and June 2013, according to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan documents.

Meanwhile, a safer means of waste disposal — eight costly incinerators — sat idle at four of these bases, according to the audit, which was released on Feb. 12 by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

“Unfortunately, in many instances DOD [Department of Defense] officials did not take sufficient steps to ensure the proper management of contracts for the construction of the incinerators,” Sopko said in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, accompanying the report.

“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,” Sopko said.

The report states that the Defense Department paid for and installed some of the incinerators before determining their practicality and cost-effectiveness. That left base commanders to choose between operating the hulking machines at a huge cost – some required an annual infusion of a million dollars -- or continuing to burn waste in the pits, with known health risks.

They chose the latter.

The pit at Kandahar was located southwest of the base, Elesky said, from which the prevailing winds came. After he returned from Afghanistan and another months-long job at a second military base with a burn pit, located in Balad, Iraq, Elesky was diagnosed with a sinus tumor that turned out to be cancer. Though no doctor has identified its precise cause, Elesky said he thinks the burn pits were a contributing factor.

"Burn pits are huge, they're dirty, they're  nasty. You wouldn't be able to put one of these next to a neighborhood in the U.S. for the simple fact that they know it would make you sick," Elesky said. 

The Pentagon knew before the operation got underway that open-pit burning carried huge risks, Sopko’s report states. He said it did not develop alternatives because of “other operational priorities.”

A U.S. Forces-Afghanistan environmental health survey cited in an earlier inspector general’s report on Shindand Airbase, for example, found that the burn pits on the base had a high potential to disperse toxic aerosols, including some considered likely to cause cancer.

A 2011 U.S. Army memo about air quality at Bagram Air Field said that “throughout the deployment, the burn pit smoke plume drifted over the [Logistics Support Area] exposing Service Members to increased air contaminants,” and warned about the risk of chronic health effects such as reduced lung function or cardiopulmonary diseases.

Sopko’s agency carried out multi-month inspections at four of the bases between 2012 and 2014. His report states that military officials confirmed in 2013 that no bases in Afghanistan were compliant with a 2012 Central Command regulation requiring base commanders to phase out open-air burn pits as the base grew in population.

A spokesman for Sopko, Alex Bronstein-Moffly, said the inspector general is unsure how often burn pits were used after 2009. That’s when Congress passed a law prohibiting the open-air burning of hazardous waste by the military except in cases when the Secretary of Defense certifies that no alternative disposal method is feasible.

In at least two places, Forward Operating Bases Sharana and Salerno in eastern Afghanistan, burn pits continued to be used until the bases closed in late 2013, Bronstein-Moffly said. He added that the agency is not aware of any such U.S. burn pits that are still active.

Curtis Kellogg, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said he would need more than one day to offer comment on the report, because of the technical nature of its information. Although the Command was given an advance draft of the report, it did not submit written comments to the inspector general.

Other military branches did. In a written response to the report’s claims that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials paid contractors for incinerators despite noting problems with the equipment, USACE Transatlantic Division Chief of Staff Richard Heitkamp wrote that “all of the incinerators turned over to customers were operational” with only “minor deficiencies.”

Sopko’s report said however that the deficiencies were not minor and that “DOD must do a better job of holding contractors accountable.” Taxpayers, he said, “deserve better than what they received for the money spent on incinerators in Afghanistan.” Sopko has expressed similar views about other U.S. military expenditures in Afghanistan.

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