Sunday, November 08, 2009

KBR burn pits kill and wound US service members

What if you were sent into a war zone and managed to make it out alive? Many people would probably feel grateful and thankful and lucky. But what if you found out, after you'd made it home, that you really didn't make it out the way you thought you had? What if, for example, you were used to running each morning and now you continually find yourself winded? What if visits to the doctor turn up conditions that are threatening to your health and possibly to your life? And what if you find out that these conditions result from a corporation making a decision to ignore rules and regulations to squeeze out a few more pennies?


These were the issues the Democratic Policy Committee was addressing in Friday's hearing chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan as the Committee examined the continued use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. He explained as he called the hearing to order, "Today we're going to have a discussion and have a hearing on how, as early as 2002, US military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan began relying on open-air burn pits -- disposing of waste materials in a very dangerous manner. And those burn pits included materials such as hazardous waste, medical waste, virtually all of the waste without segregation of the waste, put in burn pits. We'll hear how there were dire health warnings by Air Force officials about the dangers of burn pit smoke, the toxicity of that smoke, the danger for human health. We'll hear how the Department of Defense regulations in place said that burn pits should be used only in short-term emergency situations -- regulations that have now been codified. And we will hear how, despite all the warnings and all the regulations, the Army and the contractor in charge of this waste disposal, Kellogg Brown & Root, made frequent and unnecessary use of these burn pits and exposed thousands of US troops to toxic smoke."

Burn pits?

Waste is burned off. Iraq War resister Joshua Key has written (The Deserter's Tale) of working a burn pit in Iraq (as punishment). That burn pit was the waste from the latrines. The burn pits the Committee heard about contained a bit more than fecal matter. Medicines were regularly tossed into the burn pits and, former KBR employee L. Russell Keith explained in reply to a question by Senator Jon Tester, anything they couldn't get rid of, whether it would burn or not. So old vehicles got tossed in as did transit buses and they'd just leave them in the burn pits, burning off whatever would burn. Keith described the burn pit at Joint Base Balad as the biggest he'd seen and that it was ten acres with sections above ground and below.

L. Russell Keith: The ten-acre pit was located in the northwest corner of the base. An acrid, dark black smoke from the pit would accumulate and hang low over the base for weeks at a time. Every spot on the base was touched by smoke from the pit; everyone who served at the base was exposed to the smoke. It was almost impossible to escape, even in our living units. Ash from the smoke would seep into the air conditioning systems and our living areas would be covered in a coating of dark soot. Our rooms had what looked like dark-colored flour spread over everything, including our beds, our clothing and the floor. We called this "Iraqi talcum powder." There was no way to keep the powder out of our living quarters. I could often taste the smoke in the air at the base, both inside and outside.

Stony Brook University Medical Center's Dr. Anthony Szema (testifying on his own and not on behalf of or representing SBUMC) explained that it's known that when you burn anything, the smoke is not healthy to inhale and that the smoke contributes to air pollution -- even the most simple camp fire. But the burn pits weren't simple camp fires. Medicines, chemicals, were being burned and transferred into the air (and probably into the ground water). What would happen if someone in the US burned off the same things that were tossed in the Balad burn pit?

"You'll probably go to jail," Dr. Szema explained, "if you burn medical waste in the United States."

It was a point echoed by another witness.

Chair Byron Dorgan: Of the type of burn pit you saw in Iraq in 2006 -- that's some while after the war began and infrastructure had been created and so on except without incinerators -- if something of that nature were occurring in a neighborhood here in Washington DC or any American city, what are the consequences to them?

Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis: At least fines and possibly jail.

There are laws forbidding it because it's thought that it is dangerous to surrounding populations.

And yet KBR did this over and over in Iraq. With no concern for their own employees, or US service members or the Iraqi people.


They did have a few concerns.

Iraq War veteran and former KBR employee Rick Lamberth revealed one, the mess KBR was creating could bring KBR more money when they were hired to clean it up. Senator Blanche Lincoln compared it to a Superfund site and she wanted to know whether KBR is able to do such work. Lamberth revealed that it was in their contract even though what would most likely happen was that KBR would pocket the big money for cleaning up and then subcontract out the actual work of cleaning up the hazardous site. Lincoln voiced her displeasure of the possibility that "our US tax payer dollars [would be used] to clean up things that the same contractor actually created."

Lamberth detailed how he came up with a suggestion to just move the burn pits down wind while he was in Iraq but KBR rejected even doing something that simple.

Senator Tom Udall: They didn't want to do that?

Rick Lamberth: Correct, sir.

Senator Tom Udall: Cost them too much?

Rick Lamberth: Correct, sir.

They threatened him with a lawsuit "for slander if I spoke out about these violations" but they also maintained that, in Lamberth's words, "Even if they did get caught, they had already made more than enough money to pay any fines and still make a profit."

KBR's motive was profit and they were so motivated by profit that, even with the US tax payer footing the bill, they didn't give a damn about the regulations, they didn't give a damn about the safety, they didn't give a damn about the consequences of their actions.

Staff Sgt. Steven Gregory Ochs and Staff Sgt. Matt Bumpus did not testify at Friday's hearing. They couldn't because both men are dead. October 8th, Ochs' sister Stacy Pennington testified to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on behalf of her brother and her family and on behalf of Bumpus and his family.

Stacy Pennington: Both of these brave soldiers you see before you dodged bullets, mortar attacks, roadside bombs and suicide bombers. Eventually their tours of duty would take their lives. The ultimate sacrifice for a soldier, for his country, is death. However, their deaths did not show up in the manner you may assume. In Balad is the site of the infamous enormous burn pit that has been called by Lt Col Darrin L. Curtis, USAF and Bio-environmental Engineering Flight Commander, as "the worst environmental site" he had ever visited. Staff Sgt Ochs and Staf Sgt Bumpus were both stationed in Balad and war, as strategic as it is, followed them home. Death lay dormant in their blood and waited for them to return safely home and into the arms of their loved ones. Like every silent ticking bomb, it eventually exploded. On September 28, 2007, just months after Steve's return home from his third tour, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, also known as AML. He spent the next ten months as a patient -- more like a resident -- at Duke University Hospital. Doctors at Duke said his aggressive form of AML was definitely chemically induced and, like Steve, both agreed it was due to the exposures he experienced while in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the doctors refused to go on record citing as the reason that they could not prove it. The aggressive AML that Steve endured was similar to bullets ricocheting in the body causing torturous pain. The graphic images embedded in my mind are of Steve's last screams for air as he was rushed into ICU. Steve waved goodbye to my husband. Steve, with very little strength, said, "I love you, sis" and my mom kissed his forehead and said, "We will see you when you get comfortable." Five minutes later, while in the ICU waiting room, the nurse came in to tell us Steve went into cardiac arrest and they were working on him now. My mom ran into ICU -- fell to her knees as she realized her son was dying. Screams filled the air as we begged God to keep Steve here with us. We know Steve heard us as tears were in Steve's eyes. Doctors and nurses pumped on Steve's chest trying to revive him. But I knew immediately he was gone. His spirit that surrounded my dear, sweet brother was gone. We were left alone with Steve's body for hours as we were all in pure shock. My mom looked upon my brother's face and wiped away the tears puddled in his eyes. And at that very moment, our lives were changed forever. Steve died on July 12, 2008. Two weeks later, on the opposite of the coast, Staff Sgt Bumpus would succumb to the same fate. For Staff Sgt Matt Bumpus, the ticking time bomb exploded with a vengeance on July 31, 2006. Matt was rushed to the hospital by ambulance with acute appendicitis. In Matt's own words, I quote, "The next thing I remember is hearing that I had been diagnosed with AML." Doctors declared that there was chromosome damage due to exposures he must have come in contact with while in Iraq. Matt ended his prestigious service to the Army one short year before the war zone chemical warfare showed signs of its presence. As if this was not enough suffering, Staff Sgt Bumpus' family was met by the VA with harsh claims of denial to benefits. This battle continues to this day as Lisa, Staff Sgt Bumpus' wife, is left alone with two small children to raise with no VA or military benefits for her family. The aggressive assault of the AML in Matt's body was taking claim. Jo, Matt's mother, recalls the haunted look in Matt's eyes as he revealed to her that the AML invasion was back. Matt's mother will never forget the discouragement and sadness that overwhelmed Matt as the realization that promises he made to his wife and children to provide for his family, to love and protect them, and that his sacred word would be broken. He knew now that the battle was over and he would be leaving his family behind. Tuesday, July 29, 2008, Matt once again entered the hospital with fever and septic infection that discharged throughout his body. Doctors notified the family that it would just be days before his demise. Matt was heavily sedated as the pain and incubation was unbearable. Nate, Matt's ten-year-old son, bravely entered his father's hospital room to lay on his daddy's chest as he said his final goodbye. Nate curled up by his dad and cried and cried. Despite Matt's heavy sedation, Matt too was crying. Matt, being a devoted Christian, appropriately passed away on a Sunday morning, surrounded by his wife, mother, father and sister as they expressed to Matt their everlasting love. They, too, were in shock and stayed with Matt's body as the realization overwhelmed them that Matt would not be going home. Matt died on August 3, 2008.

The burn pits, the KBR burn pits, are responsible for illness and death. And you have to wonder when, if ever, KBR intends to take accountability for what their cut-every-corner-safety-be-damned attitude resulted in?

(As with all the other charges of misconduct -- they've amassed a lengthy rap sheet in the last few years, KBR denies any responsibility.)

Following the hearing, Blanche Lincoln issued this statement, "As we approach Veterans Day, we are all reminded of the heroic service and sacrifice of our troops who give of themselves to protect the freedom of all Americans. As a grateful nation, we must do all we can to ensure that their health is not at risk as they fulfill their missions abroad. By reducing the prevalence of burn pits and transitioning to other methods of disposal, we can greatly improve the quality of life and health for our troops. Costs associated with these other disposal methods have been a barrier to their implementation. However, though costs may increase in the short-term, the long-term savings could be substantial. As burn pit use is reduced, related medical treatments will decline for the servicemen and women who are exposed to this hazardous smoke."

In the hearing, Chair Dorgan noted his great disappointment that a Truman-style commission ("with subpoena power") has not been created. Senators Jon Tester and Tom Udall also expressed their dismay over that. That's three Democratic senators who want a real commission with real powers to investigate. With the Democrats currently controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, it shouldn't be impossible for such a commission to be created -- unless of course, profit continues to trump human life.

Chair Byron Dorgan: You are a bio-environmental engineer what is -- what is your own opinion? Without testing or data, you saw the burn pits, you were there, you hear the testimony of what went in the burn pits, you hear Dr. Szema's assessment. What's your assessment?

Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis: I think we're going to look at a lot of sick people later on.

Those contractors and service members now back in the US who suspect they may have been harmed should seek medical treatment and refer to BURN PITS Action Center which is a clearing house and resource of information.
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