Nation & World

Marines’ Afghan open burn pits questioned as incinerators stand idle

A federal watchdog agency says the U.S. military is endangering the health of troops and civilians working at the main Marine Corps base in Afghanistan by burning solid waste in open pits even as two of the base’s four incinerators – built for $11.5 million – go unused and the other two are running below capacity.

The federal Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says in a new report that the open burning at Camp Leatherneck, in Helmand province in the far south of the country, violates Pentagon regulations and poses long-term health risks for camp personnel, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It also said the camp was pursuing a $1.1 million contract to haul garbage to a local landfill that might not be necessary, given that the number of troops at Leatherneck has been falling as part of the massive drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces, which will leave no combat troops in the country by the end of next year.

There are about 13,500 troops at the base now. When the number drops to 12,000, the incinerators could handle all the waste, the report says.

Leatherneck is adjacent to the main British base here, Camp Bastion, and a major Afghan army base, Camp Shorabak. It’s surrounded by desert, and the air quality is notorious because of wind-blown dust. Respiratory and nasal problems are common. That led a U.S. company last year to pledge donations of up to $2 million in nasal and sinus cleaning and moisturizing products for troops stationed there and at other U.S. bases overseas.

SIGAR issued the report earlier this month as an "alert letter" to Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, who’s the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

In response to questions about the report, Lt. Col. William Griffin, a spokesman for the coalition, said it was trying to meet regulations by halting pit burning in some places and taking steps to reduce health risks in others.

"By July 31st, only four bases will have active burn pit operations," Griffin wrote. "Those four bases have submitted waivers to U.S. Central Command in order to be in compliance with regulations."

Open air burning is used only to dispose of nonhazardous material and is monitored closely to prevent risks to those who live and work on the bases, he wrote.

"When the cloud ceiling is too low or wind blows in the direction of Camp Leatherneck, open burn operations are halted until conditions improve," Griffin wrote.

The garbage-hauling contract is for less than $900,000, and it’s needed because some types of waste can’t be burned, he said in a telephone interview. He said it also was necessary to haul other waste to a landfill when the incinerators were out of service for maintenance or repairs.

"That way, they will be able to completely do away with the need for the burn pit," he said.

The SIGAR report says there are two 12-ton incinerators and two with 24-ton capacities. The smaller ones aren’t being used to capacity, and the larger ones aren’t being used at all because a contract to run and maintain them hadn’t been awarded.

Griffin wrote that a contractor had begun to test the two larger incinerators and they were expected to be in service by the end of the month.

SIGAR found similar problems in April at Forward Operating Base Salerno, a major U.S. and NATO base in Khost province, on the eastern side of the country near the Pakistan border. There, it reported, base officials had decided not to use incinerators that had been built at a cost of $5 million but never completed. They were burning waste in open pits until they could begin a garbage-hauling contract this summer, just months before the base is expected to close as the U.S. and NATO withdraw combat troops.