Holding the Government Accountable

Waste Disposal in Afghanistan: The Final Word

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its final assessment of waste disposal operations on U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The government spent more than $81 million on 23 solid waste incineration systems at nine installations. SIGAR found that many of the systems were never used or were not used to their full potential.

The report summarizes previously published findings from inspections SIGAR conducted between 2012 and 2014 at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, Camp Leatherneck, FOB Sharana, and Shindand Airbase. The key findings and lessons learned from those inspections:

  • One quarter ($20.1 million) of the total spent on incinerators was wasted on eight incinerators that were never used. Part of the reason they sat idle was because of poor planning by the military, including unfeasible physical layout and electrical deficiencies.
  • Contractors were paid in full for incinerators that were never completed or were in defective condition. At FOB Salerno, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took possession of incinerators plagued with numerous defects, including rusted equipment, leaking hydraulic lines, and missing pipe insulation. At FOB Sharana, the contractor delivered the incinerators to the base two years late and in a condition that would have cost an extra $1 million to fix. It should be pointed out that failing to hold contractors accountable for poor or incomplete performance is not limited to solid waste disposal. SIGAR has documented other instances when construction contractors were fully compensated for botched or unfinished projects.
  • Lacking incinerators, personnel were forced to dispose of solid waste in open-air burn pits, a disposal method that poses long-term health risks. Hazardous materials such as plastics, tires, and batteries were often burned, in violation of federal law and Pentagon regulations. SIGAR claims that the military has known about the environmental risks of burn pits since the 1970s but did not implement strict controls on their use until 2009. “Given the fact that DOD [Department of Defense] has been aware for many years of the significant health risks associated with open-air burn pits,” the report states, “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 from the use of open-air burn pits.”

SIGAR found the overall approach to solid waste disposal in Afghanistan was “haphazard and reactive.” As Special Inspector General John F. Sopko memorably put it in 2013: “These incinerators didn’t burn trash—but they did burn up taxpayer money.” It is now up to the Pentagon to internalize the lessons SIGAR learned to ensure safer and more cost-effective solid waste disposal practices in future contingency operations.