Congress Wants the Pentagon to Make a Plan to Close All Remaining Burn Pits

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A soldier burns trash in a dumpster in Iraq.
FILE -- Soldiers burn trash in an old dumpster at Joint Security Station Adl in western Baghdad in 2008. (U.S. Army/Brock Jones)

Congress is calling on the Pentagon would have to draft a plan within a year to close remaining burn pits and create a comprehensive list of sites where troops may have been exposed.

The provision is inside the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House last week. The bill includes language requiring the Defense Department to "phase out the use of burn pits" and provide "a list of locations where open-air burn pits" were used to dispose of waste.

In addition, the bill would direct the Pentagon to include in periodic health examinations of service members "an evaluation of whether the member has been based or stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used."

The Pentagon would also have to share the evaluations of burn pit exposure with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and allow veterans who may have been exposed to enroll in the VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry if they choose.

More than 160,000 veterans have already enrolled in the registry.

Related: VA Takes Note of 'Alarming' Burn Pit Trends in WWP Registry

Supporters of the provisions in the NDAA see them as necessary steps in gathering more data that could lead to a change in VA policy.

In a statement last week after the House passed the NDAA, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California, a doctor and co-chair of the Congressional Burn Pits Caucus, said the proposals were "an important step toward ending the military's use of toxic burn pits and helping burn pit exposed veterans get the care and benefits they need."

"Having the list of toxic burn pit locations will help VA providers and veterans identify who is at risk for cancers and autoimmune and pulmonary diseases in order to provide treatment quickly and save lives," Ruiz said.

According to the VA, waste disposed of in burn pits included, but was not limited to, "chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood, and discarded food."

Veterans service organizations and advocacy groups such as Burn Pits 360 have long pressed the VA to consider exposure to burn pits and other airborne toxins for presumptive illnesses and disability pay.

In 2007, the VA asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) to conduct research on whether exposure to airborne environmental hazards was linked to "long-term adverse health outcomes, such as cancer and respiratory disease."

The IOM research put particular attention on Joint Base Balad in Iraq, which burned up to 200 tons of waste per day in 2007.

In 2011, NAS reported that "insufficient evidence prevented the IOM committee from developing firm conclusions about what long-term health effects might be seen in service members exposed to burn pits."

Advocates suffered another setback last January when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on a suit brought by hundreds of veterans against contractor KRB, Inc., which managed burn pits for the Defense Department.

In April, NAS announced that another 21-month study was being launched on the respiratory effects of exposure to burn pits and other pollution in the Middle East.

According to a Defense Department report last April, the use of burn pits has been significantly reduced but about nine remain -- seven in Syria, one in Afghanistan and one in Egypt.

"Generally, the use of open burning is limited to short term contingency operations outside of the United States where no feasible alternative exists," the DoD report said. "For the longer-term enduring locations DoD uses conventional solid waste management practices."

Earlier this month, the Center for a New American Security issued a report on burn pits in concert with the Wounded Warrior Project that included heat maps to give veterans an indication of the "fluctuations in risks to short and long-term health over time by location."

The report relied on data on exposure to particulates in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, collected by the Periodic Occupational and Environmental Monitoring Summary (POEMS), which is maintained by the Army Public Health Center (APHC).

However, the CNAS report said that "the information currently publicly available in POEMS is insufficient to adequately determine the degree of risk individuals may face based on the dates spent at a given location."

"There's simply no record," Kayla Williams, the co-author of the report and director of the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society program, said in a conference call with reporters. "Overall, it's not a terrific dataset."

As a result, the report said that it was "impossible to tell whether varying weather conditions may have reduced or enhanced risk overall or during specific time frames."

"This also makes it difficult to determine if the health risk assessed can honestly be attributed to the whole data range provided," the report said.

Derek Fronabarger, director of government affairs for Wounded Warrior Project, was on the conference call with Williams and later spoke with Military.com.

Fronabarger, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, said the CNAS report would be useful to veterans in determining whether they may have been exposed to airborne toxins, but "unfortunately, a lot of the burden of proof is going to be on the veteran" in pursuing a claim.

The CNAS report with the heat maps can be seen here.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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