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A White Elephant and Toxic Air at Camp Leatherneck

This week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) notified top Pentagon officials of two egregious examples of waste at Camp Leatherneck, headquarters for the U.S. Marine Corps in southwestern Afghanistan.

First, on Monday, Special Inspector General John Sopko sent an alert letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Central Command chief General Lloyd Austin III, and Afghanistan forces commander General Joseph Dunford, Jr., about a recently constructed command and control facility at Camp Leatherneck. SIGAR learned that the $34 million facility will never be used.

It sounds like a multi-service boondoggle: The Army requested funding for the project in February 2010. Three months later, the Marines determined there was no need for the facility and submitted a request to cancel the project. Yet construction plans moved forward. In February 2011, the Air Force selected AMEC Earth and Environmental to construct the facility, a 64,000-square-foot building that can accommodate up to 1,500 people and includes a war room, a briefing theater, and offices for senior military officials. The military continued to purchase equipment and make improvements to the building until early this year.

“Military officials explained this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general—once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop,” Sopko wrote.

With the imminent U.S. troop drawdown and the Afghan government unable to take over much of the new U.S.-built infrastructure, military officials told SIGAR that the facility will most likely be demolished. More’s the pity, because according to Sopko, “it appears to be the best constructed building I have seen in my travels to Afghanistan.” (SIGAR posted photos of the facility here.) Sopko presented a big list of questions to Secretary Hagel and the commanding Generals seeking more information about this ill-fated project.

The second example of waste, detailed in an alert letter Sopko sent to Generals Austin and Dunford on Thursday, carries a smaller price tag but is far more serious from a public health standpoint. The letter summarizes SIGAR’s inspection of solid waste disposal practices at Camp Leatherneck. SIGAR found the camp underutilizing its $11.5 million solid waste incinerators. The camp was not using its two 12-ton incinerators to full capacity and was not using its two 24-ton incinerators at all because a contract for their operation and maintenance had not been awarded. As a result, the camp continues using open-air burn pits to dispose of its solid waste. Burn pits are linked to long-term health risks to those who breathe the emissions. As an alternative, the camp is considering awarding a $1.1 million contract to haul solid waste to a local landfill, an expenditure that wouldn’t be necessary if the camp was using all four of its incinerators at full capacity, according to SIGAR.

Back in April, the Project On Government Oversight blogged about SIGAR’s investigation of solid waste disposal at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno. SIGAR found that the $5 million incinerators installed at FOB Salerno had never been used at all. As a result, FOB Salerno was also relying on open-air burning. SIGAR faulted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for taking possession of the incinerators and supporting infrastructure before the contractor had finished the job.

Special Inspector General Sopko calls the unused command and control facility at Camp Leatherneck a “white elephant,” a term meaning “a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit.” Unfortunately, the Afghanistan reconstruction effort has been rife with white elephants, including the most recent examples of waste SIGAR uncovered at Camp Leatherneck and FOB Salerno.