Three Strikes Against Waste Disposal in Afghanistan

For the third time this year, the Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog talked trash about solid waste disposal practices on U.S. bases in Afghanistan.

On Monday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an inspection report on waste incinerators at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana in eastern Afghanistan, which closed in October. The report found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) paid contractor International Home Finance & Development LLC (IHFD) $5.4 million for incinerators that were delivered more than two years late and were riddled with so many defects that USACE decided not to use them. (Pictures of the incinerators are posted here.) Instead, personnel at FOB Sharana continued to dispose of waste in open-air burn pits, in violation of Pentagon regulations and at considerable risk to their health.

According to SIGAR, USACE did not test the incinerators before accepting them. However, the contractor that would have operated the incinerators conducted an inspection and found numerous electrical deficiencies that would have cost approximately $1 million to repair. USACE decided not to operate the incinerators because of the repair cost. Even if the incinerators had been repaired and put into operation, SIGAR found that the base would not have been able to use them to their full capacity because of accessibility problems.

Once again, USACE failed to hold a contractor accountable for a poor job. SIGAR determined that IHFD bore much of the blame for the 28-month construction delay, noting that the company’s contract managers “did not become actively involved in, or visit, the project.” IHFD’s performance on the contract was suspended for 62 days because it did not have qualified safety, health, and quality control personnel on site. IHFD was also slow in submitting safety, quality control, and schedule recovery plans.

FOB Sharana was turned over to the Afghan government in October 2013. U.S. officials told SIGAR that the Afghans “have already deconstructed the incinerators, presumably for scrap.”

In response to SIGAR’s inquiries, USACE claimed that the incinerators were constructed in accordance with contract specifications and were delivered in December 2012 in working order. USACE also insisted that none of its officers who oversaw the contract acted inappropriately, and that it does not plan to take disciplinary action against them. SIGAR is not buying this—it gave USACE 15 days to provide complete supporting documentation for its conclusions.

The SIGAR report has drawn plenty of attention to IHFD. The Denver, Colorado-based construction and environmental management firm was founded by the son of a former Afghan diplomat in 2007, two years before winning the FOB Sharana contract. IHFD provided the following statement to the Project On Government Oversight regarding SIGAR’s report:

IHFD was one of three JV [joint venture] partners in this project. We completed the project with delay. The incinerators were tested and commissioned and then handed over to the government, who had hired Flour [sic] to manage the operation and maintenance of the incinerators. At the time of hand over the incinerators were working very well and there were no additional issues. What happened to the incinerators after we left is outside our control.

The delay in delivery of the project was because of late start due to change in project location (changed three times) and due to late arrival of incinerators due to significant security issues associated with the roads, including blockage of Karachi port for Afghanistan shipments. Other causes for delays were also there, which had been approved by the government. As such no late delivery penalties were assessed.

Regardless of who was more at fault—the government or the contractor—the fact remains that taxpayers paid $5.4 million for incinerators that were never used, and U.S. troops and other personnel at FOB Sharana were put at increased risk of respiratory problems, neurological disorders, cancer, and other long-term health issues from exposure to open-air burn pit emissions.

As we noted above, SIGAR found problems with other waste incinerators in Afghanistan. In April, SIGAR reported that the $5.4 million incinerators at Forward Operating Base Salerno were unused and in a state of decay. In July, SIGAR reported that the $11.5 million incinerators at Camp Leatherneck were not being utilized to their full capacity. Troops at those bases were also forced to rely on burn pits.