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Two large trash incinerators built at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, in 2010 sit unused and rusting — a $5.4 million failure that is forcing troops to continue using potentially hazardous open-air burn pits in violation of U.S. Central Command regulations.
According to the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted with a Turkish company to build the incinerators, but the units never became operational because of construction deficiencies and a dispute over maintenance.
Without the burners, the base, which houses more than 4,000 personnel, continues to dispose of trash in open-air burn pits, a practice that disregards a CENTCOM requirement that incinerators — or other trash-disposal methods — be operational at bases of more than 100 troops.
Open-air pits, which produce large amounts of smoke and toxic gas, are considered a potential health hazard by many, although scientific data has not proven their long-term health consequences.
In its scathing report, the SIGAR faulted the Corps of Engineers for accepting the facilities with unfinished work, not funding their operation and maintenance, allowing them to deteriorate and not budgeting for their $1 million annual maintenance costs.
The Corps of Engineers wasted millions “constructing incinerators and supporting facilities it will never use,” noted Inspector General John Sopko.
The report noted the poor planning that went into building the two incinerators: According to Sopko, the facilities were appropriately sized to handle the base’s trash when operated 24 hours a day, but because Salerno is located in a region where threat conditions are high, the units would have been limited to operating 12 hours a day.
“Therefore, if the incinerators were used, the base would still have to rely on other means — such as open air burn-pit operations — for its solid waste disposal. However, there are health concerns with breathing the smoke emissions from open-air burning,” the report stated.
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.
The incinerators are scheduled to be dismantled this year, at significant cost to the U.S. government, according to Sopko, although he noted the Corps of Engineers did not provide him with the estimated amount.
Meanwhile, the two units sit neglected, harboring stagnant water and breeding mosquitoes — another potential health risk to troops.
SIGAR recommended to the Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan that they get rid of the water, accelerate a proposed solid-waste disposal contract, speed closure of the burn pits and find a cost-effective way to dismantle the two units.
In response, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan officials said they actually planned to request an extension to use the open-air burn pits because trash removal would require increased security and have an “adverse impact on combat operations.”
Citing a May 2012 Occupational and Environmental Health Site Assessment of the facility, they said the “environmental impact of this burn pit is low.”
They added that they would continue using disinfectant tablets in the stagnant water to prevent mosquito infestation until the units are dismantled.