Friday, October 26, 2012

Burn Pits claim lives, government looks the other way


Erin Jordan (Cedar Rapids Gazette) reports on Joshua Casteel's recent death and how his family believes that burn pit exposure while serving in Iraq is what caused the cancer.  June 13th, Senator Mark Udall explained burn pits while speaking to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee:

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, open air burn pits were widely used at forward operating bases.  Disposing of trash and other debris was a major challenge.  Commanders had to find a way to dispose of waste while concentrating on the important mission at hand.  The solution that was chosen, however, had serious risks.  Pits of waste were set on fire -- sometimes using jet fuel for ignition.  Some burn pits were small but others covered multiple acres of land. Often times, these burn pits would turn the sky black.  At Joint Base Balad Iraq, over 10 acres of land were used for burning toxic debris.  At the height of its operations, Balad hosted approximately 25,000 military, civilian and coalition provision authority personnel.  These personnel would be exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals released into the atmosphere.  According to air quality measurements, the air at Balad had multiple particulates harmful to humans: Plastics and Styrofoams, metals, chemicals from paints and solvents, petroleum and lubricants, jet fuel and unexploded ordnance, medical and other dangerous wastes.  The air samples at Joint Base Balad turned up some nasty stuff. Particulate matter, chemicals that form from the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas garbage or other organic substances, volatile organic compounds such as acetone and benzene  -- benzene, as you all know, is known to cause leukemia --  and dioxins which are associated with Agent Orange.  According to the American Lung Association, emissions from burning waste contain fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. All of this was in the air and being inhaled into the lungs of service members.
This is what veterans and contractors were exposed to.  Everything was burned there, tires, unused medicines, you name it.

Lives has been destroyed.  At what point does the government start working to improve things?

Jordan notes:

 These types of fires are illegal in the United States. Hundreds of soldiers and veterans are suing the Texas-based contractor that operated the burn pits on behalf of the military.
The Department of Defense isn’t ready to concede burn pits caused soldiers’ illnesses.

Jordan's written a brief article in preparation for a big article the Cedar Rapids Gazette will be publishing Sunday. Joshua's mother Kristi Casteel tells Erin Jordan for KCRG (link is video) that her son slept about 100 yards from a burn pit,  "Most of them I'm sure had no idea what they were breathing."

While the government refuses to move (the proposed legislation has passed the Senate Vetarans Affairs Committee), people have started various resources to provide information and support including Burn Pit 360   and Burn Pits Action Center. Veterans and contractors needing legal help on the burn pit issue can refer to Mike Doylle's Doyle Raizner LLP and Susan Burke's Burke PLLC.

But when does justice come from the government?  From the August 10th snapshot:

Starting in the United States.  Mark McCarter (Huntsville Times) reports, "Russell Keith, who served as a paramedic in civilian life and during two tours of duty in Iraq, died Wednesday at age 53.  He suffered from Parkinson's disease that he believed was related to his exposure to burn pits while serving in Balad."  Services will be held tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. at Laughlin Service Funeral Home with the burial at Jefferson Memorial Gardens. 
November 6, 2009, we covered the Democratic Policy Committee hearing that Russell Keith testified at.  He explained,  "While I was stationed at Balad, I experienced the effects of the massive burn pit that burned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The ten-acre pit was located in the northwest corner of the base. An acrid, dark black smoke from the pit would accumulate and hang low over the base for weeks at a time. Every spot on the base was touched by smoke from the pit; everyone who served at the base was exposed to the smoke. It was almost impossible to escape, even in our living units,"
Then-Senator Byron Dorgan was the Chair of the DPC and he stated at that hearing:
Today we're going to have a discussion and have a hearing on how, as early as 2002, US military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan began relying on open-air burn pits -- disposing of waste materials in a very dangerous manner. And those burn pits included materials such as hazardous waste, medical waste, virtually all of the waste without segregation of the waste, put in burn pits. We'll hear how there were dire health warnings by Air Force officials about the dangers of burn pit smoke, the toxicity of that smoke, the danger for human health.  We'll hear how the Department of Defense regulations in place said that burn pits should be used only in short-term emergency situations -- regulations that have now been codified. And we will hear how, despite all the warnings and all the regulations, the Army and the contractor in charge of this waste disposal, Kellogg Brown & Root, made frequent and unnecessary use of these burn pits and exposed thousands of US troops to toxic smoke.
Dire warnings were ignored.  Service members and contractors came back to the US with sicknesses resulting from that exposure and they have had to fight continually to try to have their illnesses and conditions recognized.  Russell Keith was part of those who came forward and spoke out.  He also was part of the class action lawsuit against KBR.  KBR has still not had to pay for their actions. 

Russell Keith didn't get justice.  He died without ever getting the protection or recognition that the government owed him.  He's far from the only one who has seen justice denied.  His family is far from the only family suffering.  Dropping back to May 17th:

Iraq War veteran Spc Dominick J. Liguori died Friday.  Bob Kalinowski (Times-Tribune) reports he died of sarcoidosis, "Family members say Spc. Liguori developed the disease from exposure to open-air burn pits while serving in Iraq, and the ailment slowly scarred and destroyed his lungs."  Denise Hook says of her 31-year-old nephew, "They did scans of his lungs.  You could see on the scans that most of his lungs were destroyed.  You'll see a lot more in the future.  You really will."  She also states, "Since he was little, he wore camouflage for Halloween every year.  He painted his wagon camouflage.  He painted his little trucks camouflage.  He hid in the trees with camouflage.  All he ever dreamt about was being in the military.  That was his lifelong dream.  I think if God could have made him better, he would have rejoined." 

 Who in the federal government is going to ensure that justice takes place?  Or is the plan for justice to arrive post-humously?

Families are suffering and it would ease their suffering and ease the suffering of veterans and contractors if the US government could get off its lazy ass and finally address this issue.  October 21, 2009, Senator Evan Bayh appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to speak about burn pits and about his bill which included a burn pit registry.

That was three years ago.  Nothing was done.  At what point does the US government stop stalling and start helping?

The e-mail address for this site is

iraq iraq iraq iraq iraq iraq