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IG report: Camp Leatherneck burn pit may endanger health

Jul. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan continues to use open-air burn pits to dispose of its solid wastes, potentially endangering the health of the nearly 13,500 people working there, federal investigators say. Here, a burn pit on a different base is seen last year in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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Trash incinerators at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, are either being underused or not used at all, potentially exposing troops to toxic pollutants from open-air burn pits still in operation at the base, according to a new government report.

The Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, sent a memo Wednesday to Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin warning him that the underutilization of the units “increases the long-term health risks for camp personnel, including reduced lung function and exacerbated chronic diseases.”

According to the SIGAR, the camp’s smallest incinerators, two 12-ton units, are not being used to full capacity.

And the largest, two 24-ton incinerators, aren’t being used at all because a contract for running them has not been awarded.

“You should consider terminating the use of Camp Leatherneck’s open-air burn pit operations as quickly as possible by insuring that the camp’s 12-ton incinerators are used to their full capacity and by awarding an operation and maintenance contract for the 24-ton incinerators,” wrote SIGAR John Sopko.

The memo follows on the heels of a scathing report issued by Sopko in April on incinerator operations at Forward Operating Base Salerno. The inspector general found that the base’s two $5.4 million trash incinerators were inoperable and officials relied primarily on burn pits for disposing of trash.

CENTCOM requires that incinerators — or another trash-disposal method — must be operational at bases of more than 100 troops.

More than 13,000 U.S. troops and civilians work at Camp Leatherneck; Camp Salerno is home to more than 4,000 personnel.

Burn pits were used in Iraq and have been used in Afghanistan since the start of combat operations in 2001. They have been used to dispose of everything from plastic bottles and paper trash to human and medical waste.

Hundreds of troops have reported medical problems they believe are related to burn pit exposure, from rare pulmonary diseases and unexplained rashes to cancer. The Veterans Affairs Department is establishing a registry of affected troops to study the extent of the health consequences of the pits.

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