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Senate bill could make it easier for troops exposed to burn pits to claim disabilities

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 21, 2019

WASHINGTON — A bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday could make it easier for veterans to claim disability from burn pit exposure, despite the Department of Veterans Affairs’ contention that there’s no evidence that pollution from the pits poses long-term health problems.

The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act — introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska — asks the VA to concede service members were exposed if they served in areas known to have burn pits from 1990 until the department has determined pits were no longer used in the area. As it stands now, a veteran might have to prove they served in the proximity of burn pits.

“We owe it to the men and women of our armed forces to continue to work towards addressing the impacts many face after being exposed to burn pits while serving our country overseas,” Sullivan said in a statement. “The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act reaffirms our commitment to those in uniform and ensures we will not wait decades to tackle this issue head on.”

The VA’s current stance on burn pits is “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems,” though the agency has also said it’s studying the issue. The VA said it decides disability compensations for health problems related to burn pits exposure on a case-by-case basis.

“My pledge is that we don’t experience what my father’s generation experienced and that was the decades-long wait [for care] after we knew about people's exposure to Agent Orange,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said during a November news conference.

Despite Wilkie's goals, some people have criticized the VA’s apparent slow movement to act on burn pit concerns, linking it to the decades of delayed care for Vietnam War veterans exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. 

“West Virginians have seen first-hand how long it has taken for the Vietnam-era veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals like Agent Orange to receive the care and benefits they deserve, and the toll it took on them and their families,” Manchin said in a statement. “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to this generation of veterans”

The Pentagon said it banned most burn pits in combat zones amid a whirlwind of lawsuits and claims from post-9/11 veterans their health took a toll after exposure to the toxic fumes. Now the military mostly uses clean burning incinerators. However, the current policy gives wiggle room in areas where burn pits are the only feasible way of getting rid of waste. In places where troops are operating in austere conditions — installing incinerators might not be possible.

In an April 2019 report to Congress, the Defense Department acknowledged burn pits are a health risk to troops. The report found there are nine burn pits still in operation — seven are in Syria and there’s one in Afghanistan and another Egypt.

Large logistical bases in Afghanistan and Iraq from which thousands of soldiers operated would have huge pits burning munitions, food waste, plastic and even paint cans for years before incinerators became prevalent roughly ten years ago.

But burn pits aren’t just massive piles of trash. Even after waste disposal became more regulated, troops on smaller forward operating bases and outposts would still have to burn trash and human waste in some cases. However, the Senate bill broadly defines a burn pit as “an area of land that is used for disposal of solid waste by burning in the outdoor area.”

Beynon.Steven@Stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon
 

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