Pentagon Risks Soldiers’ Health, Safety to Save Money
Policy + Politics

Pentagon Risks Soldiers’ Health, Safety to Save Money

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Federal watchdogs are once again calling attention to a potentially dangerous practice occurring daily at U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.

It involves taking out the trash. 

Many U.S. troops are still using open-air burn pits to dispose of their garbage. Everything from used equipment and worn out tires, to old batteries and food scraps is dumped into open fire pits, then set ablaze. Though military officials have argued the open-air burn pits are the most cost-effective way to get rid of the trash, health officials have frequently warned that the emissions from the fires could have serious medical consequences for soldiers down the road.

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The health and safety risks are so severe that Congress passed legislation in 2008 restricting the use of the open-fire pits - prohibiting certain items like batteries from being burned. Likewise, the Defense Department put similar regulations in place and started seeking alternative ways to dispose of the waste. In 2011, the Pentagon spent $80 million to install 23 incinerators across the country so troops could more safely dispense of their garbage.

However, more than two years later, at least eight of those incinerators - which cost around $20 million - are sitting unused, after contractors botched their implementation. Officials at the bases told auditors the incinerators didn’t work and would require costly repair efforts. 

Instead of spending the extra cash to fix them, the troops opted to continue using the open-air pits, despite the health risks. That’s according to the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which has conducted numerous investigations into the military’s waste removal practices since health officials began raising flags on the open-air pits years ago. 

SIGAR also found that military bases were defying Pentagon policies and federal regulations and continuing to burn prohibited materials in the open-air burn pits.

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“It is disturbing that SIGAR inspections showed that prohibited items such as tires and batteries continued to be disposed of in open-air burn pits even after Congress passed legislation to restrict that practice," SIGAR noted in its report.

The auditors added that they were also disturbed to find out that “DOD paid the full contract amount for incinerators that were never used because they contained deficiencies that were not corrected, and the added cost to correct them was too high to be cost-effective.”

Earlier probes by SIGAR found that military officials had sometimes opted to use the open-air pits instead of other working incinerators because of their annual maintenance costs - risking the health and safety consequences and violating the Pentagon’s regulations.

All of these situations point to the need for DOD to pay far greater attention to its solid waste management needs before the next contingency. 

According to the report, there were at least 251 active open-air burn pits in Afghanistan.

Defense officials agreed with SIGAR that it should have an improved strategy in place regarding how to dispose of solid waste, and the costs associated with it, in future contingency operations.

This is just the latest report from the federal watchdog, which routinely releases scathing audits detailing the government’s questionable practices – spending and otherwise - in its efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

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