U.S. military faulted for burn-pit use


This image was taken at Forward Operating Base Salerno, in the east, where the U.S. military spent $5 million on incinerators that never became operational. Instead, officials there have used open air burn pits that are prohibited by the Pentagon. (Courtesy of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction )

The U.S. military spent $5 million on incinerators at a base in Afghanistan that were never used, forcing troops to rely on a type of open-air burn pit that has been linked to serious respiratory problems among veterans, according to a government report released Thursday.

The Pentagon banned burn pits at large war-zone bases after facing a flurry of lawsuits and health claims by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes during deployments. The pits are used to burn everything from cafeteria waste to feces.

The case of the inoperable incinerators at Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Afghanistan, detailed in the inspector general report, sheds light on the continued challenges of waste disposal in combat zones and the stark choices that commanders in Afghanistan are having to make as the U.S. military footprint continues to contract.

“The only thing those incinerators have ever burned is taxpayer money,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a statement.

The two incinerators are rusting atop pillars in a bilge pit that has filled with stagnant water because it was built without a drainage pipe. Auditors say it could become a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

“Lack of maintenance has resulted in the incinerators becoming a potential health hazard,” according to the report.

The military ordered the incinerators in 2010, when it projected that the base would grow as part of the “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops. Army officials estimated that the devices would process the roughly 16 tons of waste produced at Salerno each day if the machines ran round-the-clock.

Because Salerno is in a dangerous area, though, it is designated as a “blackout site,” where machinery that has the potential to draw attention to the base may not be operated during nighttime.

Furthermore, the incinerators were delivered with significant deficiencies, including leaking hydraulic lines, missing pipe insulation and rusting housings on motors. Despite the shortfalls, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took receipt of the machines in November 2011 from the Turkish company hired for the project.

In the end, the military opted not to use the incinerators because commanders determined that it would cost about $1 million a year to run them. Besides, they noted, the limited hours of operation meant that they would still have to use other means to dispose of solid waste.

U.S. military guidelines say burn pits should be used only at small bases while they are being set up — a criteria that Salerno does not meet. Continued use of burn pits could endanger troops, the inspector general warned.

“This disposal method continues even though it is known that there are possible health risks to base personnel,” the report says.

In a written response to a draft of the report, the U.S. military said it would seek a waiver to the burn-pit ban because “no feasible course of action exists to conduct base trash removal.”

It said trash removal would require significant security measures and could have “an adverse impact on combat operations.”

The incinerators are scheduled to be dismantled in the fall, around the time that Salerno is set to shut down.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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