The Washington Post

In war dead inquiry, a confounding question

Soldiers transfer the casket of a fallen service member during a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base. (Mark Wilson — Getty Images)

The Washington Post broke the landfill story last month, and on Thursday, reported that the Air Force has acknowledged that the practice had led to the incineration and disposal of far more partial remains than initially believed at a site in King George County.

But one as-yet unanswered question confounds even some of those most familiar and comfortable with discussing the disposal of human body parts and medical waste.

Why would the Air Force follow cremation of remains with incineration? Why process those remains twice?

Delaware funeral home directors who handled cremations for Dover Air Force Base, the site of the service’s mortuary, have told The Post that they returned the partial remains to the base in urns between 2004 and 2008, the years in question.

The Air Force then contracted with hauling companies to remove medical waste from the mortuary — which would include assorted items used in the processing the bodies of arriving arriving troops. The sealed boxes the companies picked up were marked to indicate that they contained medical waste but not marked to indicate what specifically was inside.

The loads of medical waste were then burned at an incinerator and taken to the landfill. Those incinerated loads included the previously cremated partial remains, according to the Air Force.

State regulations vary, but in general, the handling of medical waste is tightly regulated. Waste is often burned as an efficient and safe way to reduce it to disposable ash.

But, under Delaware regulations, human remains that have been cremated by a licensed funeral director are not viewed as medical waste, said Michael Globetti, spokesman for the state’s natural resources department. They already are treated as ash.

The reasoning behind the incineration was also perplexing to an environmental regulator in Virginia — where the ash wound up, according to the Air Force.

Once medical waste is burned to ash at an incinerator, it is regarded as solid waste in Virginia, a more benign product that goes into a landfill and does not require the specially licensed hauling certificates that must be obtained by companies hauling medical waste, Steers said.

“It’s counterintuitive to take cremated remains and put them together with medical waste and burn them again,”said Jeffery Steers, director of the Division of Land Protection and Revitalization for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“Why would you?” Steers said. “It’s not required and, from a business standpoint, you’re paying twice.”

Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Thursday that the two-step process of cremating the troops’ partial remains, followed by incineration, was “in accordance with industry standards at the time.”

The Post pressed Jones to cite which standards he was referring to, or if he could give an example of any funeral homes or crematoria that disposed of partial human remains in the same manner.

“How you dispose of medical waste — at the time, how you disposed of medical waste at the time — I believe that was being done in concert with industry standards,” Jones replied.

The Air Force discontinued the cremation-incineration practice for partial remains three years ago.

The ashes of cremated partial remains now are buried at sea.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.



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