Sunday, May 09, 2010

Burn Pits

American Military Burn Pits Pose Risk
to Future Generations of Afghans

(Part 3 of 3)
by Matthew Nasuti
Kabul Press, May 8, 2010
Entire Article

More than 350 toxic sites need to be studied

The American military continues to operate burn pits in Afghanistan eighteen months after the U.S. Congress banned their use. See the February 1, 2010, article by Lindsay Wise and Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle. They used the burn pit at Camp Taji in Iraq as an example. It continues to open-burn 120 tons of waste each day. This provides a glimpse as to the volume of waste that is being illegally burned on American bases every day. Multiple that times hundreds of bases and posts in Afghanistan, and factor in that it has occurred every day for the past nine years and the scope of the problem becomes evident. The burn pits are only part of the problem. Other pollution results from spills, releases, illegal ash disposals and secret burials into unmarked landfills.

Last month the American military withdrew from its combat outposts in the Korengal Valley of Kunar Province and ceded the area to the Taliban. While the Western media reported on the American withdrawal, no one asked the question:

"Did the Americans remove all the hazardous waste that they spilled, released or disposed of in the Korengal Valley, and did they restore the locations to their original condition?"

The answer appears to be "No." There is no evidence of any environmental investigation or soil sampling, let alone environmental cleanup and restoration at these outposts. All the hazardous waste generated by the American military appears to have simply been abandoned.

Similarly when the Americans withdrew in 2008, from Combat Outpost Wanat in Nuristan Province, there does not appear to have been a cleanup of the contamination at that location. The fear is that this is the Pentagon’s model for all American bases in Afghanistan. The underlying (and undisclosed) policy seems to be "cut and run." Cutting out on their responsibilities and running away from the toxic consequences.

In the mid-1980’s, the American military closed down a number of old radar sites along Canada’s northern border that had been part of a defense system called the DEW Line. During decades of operations hazardous materials had spilled or been released at these facilities, including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The Government of Canada insisted that the Pentagon dig up all the contaminated soil and ship it back to the United States for disposal. Similar measures were ordered by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after the liberation of Kuwait and invasion of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. These are the models that the Government of Afghanistan should follow. At the other end of the spectrum are examples of countries which have not insisted on American accountability and responsibility. These include the Philippines, Somalia, Iraq, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos etc. They will have to continue to bear the toxic legacy of Pentagon "assistance" to their countries.

The Pentagon has its own environmental cleanup program which it calls the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP). DERP has been a lackluster effort. See "Superfund: Greater EPA Enforcement and Reporting Are Needed to Enhance Cleanup at DOD Sites." GAO-09-278 March 13, 2009.

Originally 985 American military bases were evaluated due to the contamination present. 140 bases were listed as major problems and were assigned to what is called the Superfund program. Each base might have dozens of separate toxic sites. The balance of the bases was given a lesser priority. They were assigned to different programs or transferred to local cleanup authorities. There is no total list of every toxic site created by the Pentagon within the United States, but the number is believed to exceed 2,000. Virtually none of these sites have been completely cleaned up (i.e., all contamination removed). Major American cities such as Tuscon, Sacramento, Denver, San Diego, Irvine and others are threatened due to pollution from these bases that has spread into the groundwater.

This author has worked on DERP sites. Unfortunately, the Pentagon cannot be relied on to conduct a comprehensive investigation of its illegal waste practices. It has too much of a conflict of interest. The Government of Afghanistan must insist on independent experts being in charge.

The format for an investigation of the estimated 350+ American military toxic sites in Afghanistan is well-known. It begins with a listing of all known and suspected sites or facilities where any American hazardous material was present. Then, there is a historical investigation of each site, followed by an analysis and environmental assessment of the data for each site. The next step is to conduct soil and water sampling at each site. Then there is more analysis and finally remediation of all the properties begins, with each being restored to its original condition.

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