Shea-Porter Attends Obama Signing of Law Protecting Troops from Toxic Fumes

Please see the following Newsweek article on Congresswoman Shea-Porter’s efforts to limit the disposal of hazardous and toxic wastes in burn pits in war zones.  This afternoon, the Congresswoman will join President Obama in the Rose Garden for the signing ceremony of the National Defense Authorization Act. 

Obama to Sign Law Protecting Troops from Toxic Fumes

A few months ago I wrote a short piece about the startling practice of using open-air burn pits to incinerate waste on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The toxic fumes from these pits have been linked to a host of debilitating illnesses in troops and contractors who worked near them. Here's an excerpt from original my piece:

Josh Eller, a military contractor stationed in Iraq in 2006, was driving through Balad Air Base when he spotted the wild dog. He wasn't sure what was in its mouth—but when Eller saw two bones, he knew he was looking at a human arm. The dog had pulled the limb from an open-air "burn pit" on the base used to incinerate waste. Eller says it's "one of the worst things I have seen."

Since hearing Eller's story, lawyer Elizabeth Burke has signed on 190 additional clients with complaints about burn pits at 18 military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. By now, she says, all pits should have been replaced by pollution-controlled incinerators. She's filed suits in 17 states against KBR, the company contracted to provide waste-disposal services at these bases, accusing it of negligence and harm. Burke was shocked to learn what her clients saw incinerated: Humvees, batteries, unexploded ordnance, gas cans, mattresses, rocket pods, and plastic and medical waste (including body parts, which may explain the arm). Fumes containing carcinogenic dioxins, heavy metals, and particulates, according to an Army–Air Force risk assessment, waft freely across bases.

Burke's plaintiffs mostly suffer from chronic or unusual medical complications that they believe were caused by burn-pit exposure. Shawn Sheridan, who served two tours at Balad, says black smoke from the pit was so thick at times he couldn't see through it with night--vision goggles. Sheridan, 26, was healthy when he enlisted six years ago. Now he has a kidney disease, chronic bronchitis, and a painful skin condition. (Read the full story here.)

Today, Eller, Sheridan and the many others affected by these pits are getting some good news, thanks in part to the work of Reps .Tim Bishop (D-NY) and Carol Shea Porter (D - NH) who have championed their cause for months. They successfully lobbied for the inclusion of provisions to limit the use of these toxic pits in the National Defense Authorization Act which the President will sign into law this afternoon. Under this new law, open air burning of medical and hazardous waste will be prohibited except where the Defense Secretary deems there is no alternative, the DoD must justify the use of burn pits to Congress, and it will develop a plan to eliminate the use of burn pits entirely.

The legislation won't repair Shawn Sheridan's lungs or kidneys, but it will force the DoD to limit troop exposure to potentially hazardous fumes in the future. That really shouldn't be so hard. According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, only about half the incinerators the military purchased four years ago to help eliminate the use of burn pits are currently in operation. The public would never stand for having burn pits operate in a residential area in the U.S. Now, eight years into the war in Afghanistan, U.S. service members might start receiving that same courtesy.

(You can read more about burn pits in Kelly Kennedy's excellent reports for the Military Times.)