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Audit: Military using potentially harmful methods of burning trash

By Adam Levine, CNN
  • Bases in Iraq are burning plastic and other banned items, report finds
  • Troops have blamed range of health issues on emmissions from burn pits
  • Military has shifted attitude on toxicity of burn bits
  • Still, DOD says the pits are often necessary at bases

Washington (CNN) -- Military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to use waste methods that expose troops to potentially toxic emissions without fully understanding the effects, according to a new government audit obtained by CNN.

Between September 2009 and October 2010, investigators from the Government Accountability Office visited four bases in Iraq and reviewed planning documents on waste disposal for bases in Afghanistan. None of the Iraq bases visited were in compliance with military regulations. All four burned plastic -- which generates harmful emissions -- despite regulations against doing so.

The emissions have been the source of controversy as troops have complained about a host of problems, from cancerous tumors to respiratory issues, blaming exposure to burn pits. Military officials have denied any consequential effects on most troops.

The military, the report concluded, has been slow in using alternatives and has not considered the long-term costs of dealing with subsequent health issues.

Prior to an initial outcry about the pits more two years ago, the largest base in Iraq -- Balad Air Base -- was burning everything from hazardous and medical waste to plastics, using jet fuel as accelerant, according to military documents. The smoke poured over the living quarters and the base hospital, exposing thousands of troops to the emissions.

GAO investigators blame the continued burning of prohibited items on the constraints of operating in a war zone, limitations of resources and outdated agreements with waste disposal contractors that do not include the latest regulations on what is safe to burn.

The U.S. military generates about 10 pounds of non-hazardous waste per service member each day and "may consist of plastic, Styrofoam, and food from dining facilities; discarded electronics; shipping materials such as wooden pallets and plastic wrap; appliances; and other items such as mattresses, clothing, tires, metal containers, and furniture," the report says.

According to the report, there were 221 burn pits in Afghanistan by August and more are anticipated. Only 21 remained in Iraq and, like the troop levels there, the numbers are expected to decrease. The burn pits are operated by either the military or contractors.

While the pits have been in use since the beginning of each war, regulations and guidance were only issued in 2009 -- eight years into the Afghanistan conflict and six years after the start of the war in Iraq.

Incinerators and recycling would make for a much safer environment, but to date there are only 20 incinerators in Afghanistan and 41 in Iraq. Military officials complained they "were expensive and posed acquisition, logistic, and operational challenges," according to the report. However, the GAO found that the Department of Defense has little understanding of that cost.

"Our analysis determined that DOD has little information on what it costs to procure, install, operate, and maintain incinerators during contingency operations," said the report.

Additionally, the GAO found that sorting of trash and recycling efforts are only beginning in Iraq and have not been planned for in Afghanistan.

The report notes that the 2009 directive for Afghanistan regarding waste said while burning trash at the beginning of military operations is understandable, "open burning will not be the regular method of solid waste disposal."

A March 2010 military directive allows for burning waste only if the commander determines there is no other feasible method of waste disposal and petitions the Pentagon to do so. GAO investigators noted that as of August 2010, no commander had requested such permission. However, a senior military official told investigators that "information gathered from field commanders led him to conclude that disposal of prohibited items in burn pits had become routine at many bases in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The military's attitude about the impact of the burn pits has shifted. When complaints initially arose in 2008 military officials denied there was any hazard to troops. Last year the Pentagon changed that position, declaring long-term effects for troops who had pre-existing conditions was foreseeable.

Still, the military defends the pits as a necessity, especially at many of the smaller combat outposts where more advanced methods are not feasible or practical. In addition, military officials told the GAO investigators that many of the supplies shipped to the bases are made of or packaged in prohibited materials, creating a greater burden in finding alternative methods to dispose of the materials that continue to pile up.

On two of the bases visited, waste management was handled by a contractor which did not abide by the updated rules because their contract predated the new regulations. In September 2009, the military tried to renegotiate with the contractor to incorporate the more stringent disposal requirements, a process that was ongoing the following summer.

"As of July 2010, DOD and the contractor had yet to finalize this update because the contractor believes the new guidance would require activities beyond the scope of existing contracts that would result in additional costs, and therefore should require a re-negotiation of those task orders," the GAO report said.

Despite regulations by the U.S. Central Command to assess pit emissions, U.S. forces in neither Iraq or Afghanistan have done so in a comprehensive fashion, the GAO report stated.

"The health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, mainly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits," according to the report.

"Thousands" of samples have been collected by medical personnel, though military officials said it is difficult to determine if the captured air is truly from the burn pit or another source in the vicinity, like an industrial site.

A GAO analysis of the data from the samples collected found matter named on the CENTCOM list of potentially harmful substances. Investigators found that the samples which exceeded the levels considered safe if exposed for a year mostly contained fine particles. Fine particles can embed in the lung tissue, and of particular concern is when there is prolonged exposure.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who has been vocal in his concern about troops' exposure to burn pits, urged the Pentagon to restrict the use of the pits in Afghanistan.

"I am deeply troubled to learn that the Defense Department has not taken simple steps, such as segregating plastics, to ensure that our troops are not exposed to harmful emissions," Feingold said in a statement released Friday.

The acting commander of Central Command, Lt. Gen. John Allen, wrote a letter to Feingold in July saying the military is trying to eliminate the use of burn pits at bases that are active for 90 days or more and occupied by 100 personnel or more. In Iraq, Allen anticipates there will be no burn pits by December of this year. Afghanistan is more challenging, but the military is in the process of procuring "almost 200 incinerators," he said in the letter, obtained by CNN.

The military, Allen wrote, continues "to evaluate potential health outcomes in Service Members who have deployed" and he promises an improvement in air sampling collection.