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Afghanistan Incinerators Burn Money, Not Trash

On Thursday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released the first in a series of inspection reports on solid waste incinerators constructed on U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The first report concerns the $5 million waste incineration system built at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno.

In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) hired a Turkish contractor to build two 8-ton capacity incinerators on the base (pictured here) along with supporting facilities including an ash landfill, a management office, utilities, walkways, and security fencing.

Nearly three years later, the incinerators have never been used.

SIGAR found that not all of the contract work had been completed when FOB Salerno took possession of the incinerators and supporting facilities in November 2011. USACE provided the contractor a list of deficiencies—including rusted equipment, leaking hydraulic lines, and missing pipe insulation—but the very next day it accepted the work as complete. Readers of this blog might get the feeling that letting contractors walk away from incomplete or botched jobs in Afghanistan is becoming standard practice for USACE.

With non-functioning incinerators, SIGAR found that FOB Salerno continues to rely on open-air burn pits to dispose of solid waste, a controversial method believed to pose health risks to personnel living on the base or within range of pit emissions. As a result of those health concerns, the military began to phase out burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and moved to replace them with incinerators. It also issued new rules that strictly limit the use of burn pits on U.S. bases in contingency operations. According to SIGAR, FOB Salerno is currently in violation of those rules and will continue to be as it seeks a waiver to continue using burn pits.

Ironically, SIGAR found that the $5 million eyesore at FOB Salerno has itself become a health hazard. Due to a lack of maintenance, the incinerators and supporting facilities have fallen into disrepair. SIGAR found equipment broken, corroded, or coated with bird excrement and rust. The ground below the incinerators fills with stagnant water, becoming a potential breeding ground for malaria-infected mosquitoes.

SIGAR bluntly concluded that the government wasted $5 million in taxpayer money on the FOB Salerno incinerators. In fact, the whole project was probably doomed from the start. SIGAR determined that, even if construction had been completed, threat conditions at the base would keep the incinerators from operating at full capacity and the base would still have to rely on other means of solid waste disposal, including burn pits.

“These incinerators didn’t burn trash—but they did burn up taxpayer money,” Special Inspector General John F. Sopko said in a release announcing the report. “Worse, using open-air burn pits in their place puts the health of our troops at risk.”

FOB Salerno is scheduled to close sometime between October and December of this year, and as SIGAR reported, the base has not conducted a cost-benefit analysis to determine the best way to dispose of the incinerators. One of the options being considered is dismantling the incinerators and selling them at scrap metal prices.

On a related note, a massive multi-district federal lawsuit against contractors KBR and Halliburton alleging harm from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan was dismissed in February.