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Afghan bases left with fire-prone buildings, inspector general warns

WASHINGTON — In a hurry to finish installations for Afghan forces before the end of the year, the Army Corps of Engineers is leaving behind hundreds of buildings that were built with materials that make them prone to catch fire, the inspector general with oversight for U.S. reconstruction efforts warned in a letter Thursday.

That fact alone alarmed John Sopko, the inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. But he was incensed by the rationale offered by one Army general who said the military was unable to retrofit all of the buildings.

"The typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit, Afghan soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation," Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre, deputy commander of the Army Corps' Transatlantic Division, wrote in a memo.

Sopko, whose confrontational style and widely publicized audits have made him somewhat radioactive in government circles, criticized the Army Corps for leaving behind unsafe buildings and for the money it has had to spend upgrading others.

"I am very troubled by such logic, which seems to argue that fire hazards for a building are somehow remedied by the youthful speed and vigor of the occupants," Sopko wrote in a June 9 letter that his agency made public Thursday. "This logic pales in light of not only the speed with which these buildings will be consumed by fire as well as the fact that a number of the buildings in question are infirmaries and sleeping quarters."

The fire-prone buildings are among 1,592 arch-shaped structures the Army was commissioned to build at military bases around the country as part of a $1.57 billion effort. Of those, only 507 were initially built using materials that meet a global safety standard known as the International Building Code.

The Army is taking steps to make fixes to 800 of the facilities to bring them up to standard. But it expects that 285 will remain noncompliant because of the type of insulation foam contractors installed in the buildings.

Col. Richard Heitkamp, the Army Corps' Transatlantic Division commander, said in a statement that the officials have added "further fire protection to mitigate the potential risk." The buildings, he noted, have "additional egress points."

Two of the buildings were engulfed in flames quickly while they were built. Army officials said those cases were the result of "hot work by the contractor." Heitkamp said his team in Afghanistan is conducting an independent review "to ensure that remediation efforts are sufficient."

The Office of the Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction first raised concerns about the buildings in early April 2013, calling the use of spray polyurethane foam insulation systems a "significant fire hazard." Later that month, Army officials agreed to cease using the insulation foam in new buildings and pledged they would bring all into compliance.

But early this year, Army officials began transferring buildings that were built with the deficient materials over to the Afghans, citing the urgency of finishing the military installations for a force that has taken on the brunt of the fight in Afghanistan as the U.S. military footprint has thinned out.

The threat of fire at Afghan military bases is high because they often get attacked with artillery and many have power grids or generators that deliver unsteady electricity.

"USACE's apparent failure to enforce its own contract requirements seems to have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in additional costs and significant construction delays," Sopko wrote. "Moreover, I am concerned that the rush to complete these buildings has led USACE to disregard its own safety standards and, in so doing, has jeopardized the lives of" Afghan soldiers.

The 285 buildings that will remain noncompliant with safety standards include 83 barracks, four medical clinics and a two fire stations.
 

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