Saturday, October 16, 2010

Burn pits and stop-loss

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 above is from Adam Levine's "Audit: Military using potentially harmful methods of burning trash" (CNN). Yesterday the GAO (US Government Accountability Office) released a report [PDF format warning] entitled "AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ: DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management." The report opens with:

The military has relied heavily on open pit burning in both conflicts, and operators of burn pits have not always followed relevant guidance to protect servicemembers from exposure to harmful emissions. According to DOD, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of solid waste per soldier each day. The military has relied on open pit burning to dispose of this waste mainly because of its expedience. In August 2010, CENTCOM estimated there were 251 burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq. CENTCOM officials said the number of burn pits is increasing in Afghanistan and decreasing in Iraq, which reflects U.S. troop reallocations and efforts to install waste incinerators. Despite its reliance on burn pits, CENTCOM did not issue comprehensive burn pit guidance until 2009. Furthermore, to varying degrees, operators of burn pits at four bases GAO visited in Iraq were not complying with key elements of this guidance, such as restrictions on the burning of items, including plastic, that produce harmful emissions. DOD officials also said that, from the start of each conflict, operators routinely burned items that are now prohibited. The continued burning of prohibited items has resulted from a number of factors, including the constraints of combat operations, resource limitations, and contracts with burn pit operators that do not reflect current guidance.
Waste management alternatives could decrease the reliance on and exposure to burn pits, but DOD has been slow to implement alternatives or fully evaluate their benefits and costs, such as avoided future costs of potential health effects. Various DOD guidance documents discourage long-term use of burn pits, encourage the use of incinerators and landfills, or encourage waste minimization such as source reduction. DOD has installed 39 solid waste incinerators in Iraq and 20 in Afghanistan, and plans to install additional incinerators in Afghanistan. To date, source reduction practices have not been widely implemented in either country and recycling consists primarily of large scrap metals. DOD plans to increase recycling at its bases in Iraq, but recycling at bases in Afghanistan has been limited. Further, DOD has not fully analyzed its waste stream in either country and lacks the information to decrease the toxicity of its waste stream and enhance waste minimization.
U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq do not sample or monitor burn pit emissions as provided by a key CENTCOM regulation, and the health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, partly because the military does not collect required data on emissions or exposures from burn pits. Army public health officials have, however, sampled the ambient air at bases in each conflict and found high levels of particle pollution that causes health problems but is not unique to burn pits. These officials identified logistical and other challenges in monitoring burn pit emissions, and U.S. Forces have yet to establish pollutant monitoring systems. DOD and VA have commissioned studies to enhance their understanding of burn pit emissions, but the lack of data on emissions specific to burn pits and related exposures limit efforts to characterize potential health impacts on service personnel, contractors, and host-country nationals.

Those hoping for a major report that actually said something will go through the 49 pages of text in vain until coming to the second to the last paragraph:

Lawsuits have been filed in federal court in at least 43 states in which current and former servicemembers have alleged, among other things, that a contractor's negligent management of burn pit operations, contrary to applicable contract provisions, exposed them to air pollutants that subsequently caused serious health problems. The contractor has moved to dismiss the suits, arguing, among other things, that it cannot be held liable for any injuries that may have occurred to service personnel because all its burn pit activities occurred at the direction of the military. We express no view in this report aon any issue in this pending litigation involving burn pits. Moreover, because of the pending litigation, we did not evalute whether the contractor has complied with the terms of its contract with respect to burn pit operations.

US Senator Russ Feingold's office released the following on Friday:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Washington, D.C. -- U.S. Senator Russ Feingold is calling on the Defense Department to protect U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from harmful emissions from burn pits. Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will release an investigative report, requested by Feingold and other members of Congress, which reveals the Armed Services are not complying with federal legislation aimed at preventing the exposure of troops to harmful emissions resulting from the burning of mass amounts of trash on bases throughout the Middle East. The GAO report indicates that the Armed Forces cannot rule out the possibility of long-term health implications for the nearly two million troops that have served in Iraq and 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. "The Defense Department’s slow reaction has exposed another generation of veterans to the exact same carcinogens found in Agent Orange. I am pleased that the VA has acknowledged the dangers posed by these harmful practices and has taken steps to ensure that veterans who become ill as a result get the care and compensation they need. And while the Defense Department is right to close the pits in Iraq, it must do more to restrict their use in Afghanistan."

Feingold first heard of this issue in 2008 when he was contacted by a Wisconsinite who served in Iraq and was exposed to potentially hazardous fumes created by the burning of mass amounts of trash on a U.S. base in Iraq. Feingold has led efforts to ensure the Defense Department addresses the issue and worked to pass legislation last year restricting the burning of harmful materials. The military has since issued regulations prohibiting the burning of harmful substances in burn pits and committed to closing major pits in Iraq. In addition, the VA has issued regulations to help ensure that any veterans who become ill as a result of exposure to the fumes receive care and compensation.

The report from the Government Accountability Office found that none of the bases inspected were in compliance with federal legislation, in part due to disputes with contractors. Incinerators that could have prevented the emission of harmful fumes were not installed at bases in Iraq for approximately 5 years due to disputes with contractors.

A copy of the GAO report is available here:

Meanwhile South Dakota's Brooking Register reports that 64 members of South Dakota's Army National Guard have received their orders to report to Fort Hood in June for training and then to deploy to Iraq.

The start of the Iraq War brought a new development, stop-loss. The backdoor draft meant that service members who thought they were out of the military because their contracts said so were not out, their terms were extended. No, that's not part of contract law. In fact, under the 14th Amendment, someone who feels they or their lives were harmed by stop-loss could sue and might win. (They wouldn't have won earlier when the practice was heavy in play. The courts are timid little creatures who -- despite their obligation to be a check on both the legislative and the executive branches of government -- don't like to take a stand when things actually matter.) But stop-loss -- at least for now -- is supposedly on the way out. The DoD noted an extension in filing claims for pay not received under stop-loss:

Servicemembers looking to receive due compensation for time they spent deployed beyond their original orders now have an extra two months to apply.

The deadline for eligible servicemembers, veterans and their beneficiaries to apply for retroactive stop loss special pay has been extended to Dec. 3, 2010.

To apply, or for more information on retroactive stop loss, including submission requirements and service-specific links, go to

"It's important that all those eligible for this benefit take the opportunity to apply for what they've earned," said Lernes Hebert, acting director, Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management. "We encourage those eligible to apply as soon as possible, to avoid the last minute rush, which can increase processing time."

On-line submission provides a claim number, allows for automated status updates, and provides a means for the military service to contact the applicant.

If eligible members do not have internet access, they should print, complete and sign Department of Defense Form 2944, Claim for Retroactive Stop Loss Payment. Next, choose the appropriate method for submitting the claim form and available supporting documents based on your service specifications.

This information can be found on your service’s stop loss website.

The deadline extension is included in the continuing resolution signed by President Barack Obama yesterday, providing funding for federal government operations through Dec. 3.

On the issue, reports:

Stop loss is now winding down. Of the three services, only the Army is still using it and the last soldiers held back against their will are scheduled to finally go home in March 2011. The Pentagon now uses the Deployment Extension Incentive Pay program to encourages soldiers to voluntarily extend their deployments.
But there's no telling when stop loss might get used again -- and at least one member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), wants to make sure that if there is a next time, it only happens with explicit congressional authorization.
Jones, one of a small but growing group of prominent, anti-war Republicans, said he thinks it's not fair to take advantage of a contractual clause most young people don't even notice when they're signing up for military service. Furthermore, he notes, the stop-loss clause specifies that it can only be exercised during a "time of war" -- and Congress never actually declared war against either Iraq or Afghanistan.
"If we're going to give the president the option of going to war -- but we don't declare war -- then I think there ought to be some provision in the law that says: If you have not declared war, then you must come to Congress for the authority to stop loss," Jones told HuffPost. "You must have a debate about the stop loss," he said.

The following community sites -- plus Military Families Speak Out, and Jane Fonda -- updated last night and today:

And we'll close with this from David Edwards and Muriel Kane's "Whistleblower Reveals Systematic Humiliation of Detainees" (World Can't Wait):

Note – On October 20, Ethan McCord will be joining World Can't Wait for a live webcast on the Collateral Murder video released by Wikileaks. Ethan is the soldier in video carrying the young girl from the van. Today, he has also just released some videos showing humiliation of detainees...
A former US soldier in Iraq has come forward with video of his fellow soldiers subjecting Iraqi detainees to what he describes as "mental, emotional, degrading" abuse.
US Army Specialist Ethan McCord was a member of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, the same unit that was involved in a 2007 helicopter attack in Baghdad shown in a leaked video released last April by WikiLeaks.

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oh boy it never ends