DOD not enforcing burn pit rules, GAO finds

The burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, was in full operation in 2008.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 20, 2010

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The Department of Defense has not been enforcing its own rules for operating burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

“The military has relied heavily on open pit burning in both conflicts, and operators of burn pits have not always followed relevant guidance to protect service members from exposure to harmful emissions,” the report states.

The GAO report follows complaints by veterans who blame emissions from downrange burn pits for their pulmonary and respiratory ailments. Multiple lawsuits have been filed by current and former servicemembers against defense contractor KBR alleging that the company mismanaged burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For years, burn pit operators in Iraq and Afghanistan have routinely incinerated items, including plastics, that produce harmful emissions, the report states.

According to the DOD, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of solid waste per soldier each day.

“This waste may consist of plastic, Styrofoam, and food from dining facilities; discarded electronics; shipping materials such as wooden pallets and plastic wrap; appliances; and other items such as mattresses, clothing, tires, metal containers, and furniture,” the report states.

The military relies open pit burning to dispose of the waste mainly because of expedience.

“Burn pits help base commanders manage waste, but also produce smoke and harmful emissions that military and other health professionals believe may result in acute and chronic health effects to those exposed,” the report states.

In August 2010, the U.S. Central Command estimated there were 251 burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq. “Despite its reliance on burn pits, CENTCOM did not issue comprehensive burn pit guidance until 2009,” the report states.

GAO inspectors visited four burn pits at bases in Iraq and found operators not complying with key elements of the guidance such as restrictions on burning items, including plastic, that produce harmful emissions.

A number of factors, including constraints imposed by combat operations, limited resources and contracts with burn pit operators that don’t reflect current guidance, mean the military is still burning prohibited items, the report states.

U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq also do not sample or monitor burn pit emissions as provided by a key CENTCOM regulation, and the health impacts of burn pit exposure on individuals are not well understood, partly because the military does not collect required data, the GAO found.

Army public health officials have sampled the ambient air at bases in each conflict and found high levels of particle pollution that causes health problems but is not unique to burn pits, according to the report.

DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs have commissioned studies of burn pit emissions, but the current lack of data limits efforts to characterize potential health impacts on service personnel, contractors, and host-country nationals, the GAO said.

Despite the problems the DOD has been slow to implement alternative waste management methods or fully evaluate their benefits and costs, including the future potential health costs, the report states. DOD has installed 39 solid waste incinerators in Iraq and 20 in Afghanistan, and plans to install more in Afghanistan.

But so far, not much has been done to reduce the amount of waste that must be disposed of downrange.

Large scrap metals make up most of the recycled material on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are plans to increase recycling at bases in Iraq but recycling at bases in Afghanistan has been limited and the DOD has not fully analyzed the waste stream in either country, the report states.


The burn pit at a combat outpost in Baghdad in 2008 shows the amount and types of trash being openly burned at even the smallest U.S. bases in Iraq. A Government Accountability Office report released this month found that the Department of Defense has not been enforcing its own rules for operating burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.