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U.S. Using Unsafe Burn Pit in Afghanistan—Again

Open-air burn pit at Shindand Airbase, with unused Afghan-operated incinerators in background.

For the fourth time in 15 months, the Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog uncovered dangerous and illegal solid waste disposal practices on a U.S. military base.

Last year, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found unused or under-utilized solid waste incinerators at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, Camp Leatherneck, and FOB Sharana. At all three installations, personnel were disposing of waste in open-air burn pits, in violation of Pentagon regulations and at considerable risk to their health.

This week, SIGAR released an inspection report on waste management facilities at Shindand Airbase, a coalition base in western Afghanistan. The base was equipped with four incinerators: two operated by the U.S. and two operated by the Afghan military. SIGAR found that the U.S.-operated incinerators were “generally constructed in accordance with contract specifications” and transferred to the base in operable condition in June 2012; the Afghan-operated incinerators were transferred in August 2012 “with no significant issues that would inhibit their operation.”

However, the U.S.-operated incinerators functioned at a significantly reduced capacity for a time due to mechanical problems. As a result, only 35 percent of U.S.-generated solid waste at the base was being incinerated, with the remainder being disposed of in an open-air burn pit. Even after the incinerators were fixed, U.S. personnel continued using the burn pit. According to SIGAR, one to two truckloads of solid waste per day were deposited in the burn pit from at least November 2012 to June 2013. Furthermore, personnel had disposed of prohibited items in the burn pit, such as batteries and plastics, without notifying Congress as required by law.

Meanwhile, the Afghans spurned their incinerators altogether in favor of open-air burning. According to SIGAR, the Afghans decided the burn pit was cheaper to operate and “[did] not perceive that the health benefits of using the incinerators [was] worth the cost of the fuel to run them.” This was an incredibly reckless trade-off, because as SIGAR points out:

The continued use of open-air burn pits pose[s] potential health risks for base personnel. Some possible health hazards associated with smoke emitted by burning waste include breathing particulate matter, lead, mercury, dioxins, and irritant gases. These substances can negatively affect organs and body systems, such as the adrenal glands, lungs, liver, and stomach.

The Shindand Airbase burn pit was not well managed and therefore “had a high potential to produce dioxins and other toxic compounds,” according to SIGAR.

At least the airbase was able to get some use out of its incinerators. Contrast this with FOBs Salerno and Sharana, where more than $10 million was squandered on incineration systems that were never used at all. Of course, that’s small comfort to the approximately 4,000 U.S. and Afghan military personnel and contractors who live—and breathe—at Shindand.

Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs launched an online burn pit registry to gather data from veterans who were exposed to burn pits or other airborne hazards during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Congress is also looking for ways to help veterans who believe their health problems were caused by exposure to burn pit emissions.

Image from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.