WASHINGTON — The U.S. military still relies on burn pits to dispose of waste in Iraq despite concerns that toxic smoke and fumes released by fires can cause serious illnesses to troops.
During the bulk of wartime operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, the military relied on hundreds of large, open-air pits to burn solid waste, exposing personnel working the pits and others living nearby to toxic smoke.
In 2009, the Department of Defense limited the times when burn pits could be used in response to Congress and growing health concerns. DOD regulations require an incinerator to be used at any base where there are more than 100 personnel and base commanders to come up with contingency plans for the disposal of solid waste, noting burn pits should be a short-term solution only.
Now “there are no burn pits operated at any U.S. base in Afghanistan,” said Col. Michael Lawhorn, spokesman for Operation Resolute Support.
However, some pits are in limited use in Iraq, according to DOD officials.
When U.S. forces returned to Iraq in late 2014 and summer 2015 to assist the Iraqis in rebuilding their army and security forces, burn pits were put back in use, said Army Capt. Traun Moore, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
“Coalition forces at Al Asad Air Base and al-Taqaddum Air Base disposed of garbage by using burn pits, in accordance with Central Command environmental guidelines. The burn pit at Al Asad has been replaced by an incinerator and is no longer in use,” Moore said. “Regular garbage at (al-Taqadum) is disposed of by a local contractor. However, a registered medical waste burn pit is still in use. An incinerator has been shipped to (al-Taqadum) and is in the process of being put into operation.”
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found the DOD was not following its own regulations for safe burn-pit operations, and earlier pits were used regularly to dispose of prohibited plastics, paints, batteries, aerosols, aluminum and other items that could produce harmful emissions when burned.
KBR, Inc., under the military’s logistical support contract, operated many of the pits. On Jan. 21, a federal court in Maryland will consider a lawsuit alleging soldiers’ exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan led to serious respiratory illnesses and deaths.
Sgt. 1st Class Fred Slape, who served two tours in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011, died just eight weeks after doctors diagnosed him with advanced lung cancer. He was 42.
“Fred was the motor sergeant who ran the motor pools, which included the living areas of most mechanic personnel. These areas were always far in the rear of the [forward operating base], which was only 25 feet from these burn pits,” his widow, Diane Slape, told Stars and Stripes. Slape served with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
During his tours, Slape was assigned to Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar and Forward Operating Base Andar to the north and east of Kandahar.
Diane Slape said her husband would tell her how he was having trouble breathing and that the pits “burned anything and everything from food waste, medical waste, motor oil, tires, track rubber, bloody uniforms (some flame retardant), amputated body parts, and many other items that shouldn’t be burned, much less burned together, all set on fire and kept burning with gasoline or jet fuel.”
“My husband complained of these burn pits immediately” and the smoke that would linger in their living facilities, she said. But her husband told her that he was instructed to “stop being so dramatic.”
Fred Slape was also a lifetime cigarette smoker but did not experience health concerns, including distorted vision and severe headaches, until he came back from deployment, Diane Slape said. Tests found two brain tumors and advanced lung cancer and Slape passed away Oct. 22, 2015.
Diane Slape is not party to the lawsuit against KBR because the contractor did not operate the burn pits at the bases where her husband was stationed.
After his death, Diane Slape has become active in Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit advocacy group pushing veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to get tested for respiratory disease and register with the national database that the Department of Veterans Affairs has established to track how many veterans could face health issues due to the pits.
“I promised him whether he lived or died,” Diane Slape said of her efforts to help other soldiers.
On Jan. 21, a federal district court in Greenbelt, Md. will hear arguments to determine the scope of the case, which was filed in 2010 and could include more than 53 former or current bases in Iraq, including al Taqadum Air Base and Taji, where some of the 3,550 U.S. soldiers sent back to Iraq are deployed to train Iraqi security forces.
Nine locations in Afghanistan and another eight bases supporting Iraq and Afghanistan operations, such as Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, also could be included in the lawsuit.
Since 2010, dozens of similar lawsuits by servicemembers have been consolidated under this case, which is being presided over by Judge Robert W. Titus at the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Greenbelt Division.
The lawsuit is just one of several fronts in which veterans groups and the DOD are attempting to weigh what effect burn-pit exposure has had on servicemembers.
In 2015, Congress added burn-pit exposure to a list of peer-reviewed medical issues to be studied by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program at Fort Detrick, Md. That study is not yet underway, said Gail Whitehead, a spokesman for the program. Research funding for the congressional program starts at two years, and typically produces a report within three years, Whitehead said. Burn-pit exposure was not included in the 2016 list of topics.
In addition, the VA opened a burn-pit registry in 2014 for the estimated 2.3 million veterans who served in Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s or supported the more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA did so to record what ailments they were experiencing, where and when they served and whether they were exposed to burn pits.
As of Nov. 30, 53,255 veterans had registered, said Rosie Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360.
The VA has released two studies based on information collected from the registry. The data shows that personnel who worked at burn pits were more likely to report a chronic respiratory disease, and the department has said “veterans who were closer to burn pit smoke may be at greater risk.”
However, the VA said: “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”
The VA will be expected to report to Congress later this year on its findings from the registry based on language inserted by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., into the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill.
Stars and Stripes reporter Heath Druzin contributed to this report from Afghanistan.