The House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation Tuesday that would allow relatives or a designee to report the death of a veteran on the Department of Veterans Affairs' Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.
The measure, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement bill, would give family members access to the registry to provide cause of death and note whether it was possibly related to burn pit exposure.
Sponsored by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California, the bipartisan bill was inspired by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jennifer Kepner, a resident of Cathedral City, California, who deployed to Iraq in 2006 and lived and worked for six months near the Balad Air Base burn pit, a 10-acre, open-air waste dump where everything from trash and medical waste to batteries, fuel and plastics was incinerated.
Kepner developed pancreatic cancer despite having no known risk factors, according to Ruiz, and her oncologist found "that the only probable and most probable cause of her cancer was exposure to burn pits."
She died Oct. 18, 2017.
"While Jennifer was fighting bravely against her cancer, she also had to fight tooth and nail to get the health care and benefits that she had earned," said Ruiz, a physician.
More than 155,000 former service members have joined the burn pit registry, which was established in 2014 by Congress to encourage the VA to document the health of troops who were exposed to the pits and other airborne contaminants from oil well fires, soil or chemicals.
When the registry was first established, advocacy groups criticized its structure, saying it did not have a way for family members of deceased veterans to contribute information -- a restriction they said would not provide the VA with a clear understanding of the scope of the issue.
If the bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Army reserve podiatrist and Ohio Republican, passes in the Senate, it would allow an immediate family member, a person who lived with the veteran when they died, or a designee to access the registry and update the information.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
Rosie Torres, executive director of the advocacy group Burn Pits 360, on Wednesday called Ruiz's bill a step in the right direction.
But, she added, "it's unfortunate that family members who already have lost loved ones can't add their veterans to the list.
"It's a great thing if it passes in the Senate and current families will have this. ... I still feel like we are so far behind on understanding the impact of toxic exposures, though," she said.
In addition to the bills sponsored by Ruiz and Udall, there are four other pieces of proposed burn pit legislation under consideration in Congress. One, by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, would allow family members of deceased veterans to register their loved ones on the VA database.
Another, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, would require the Defense Department and military services to evaluate whether members of the armed forces were stationed near burn pits or exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals and, if so, enroll those individuals on the registry, unless they opt out.