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Baghdad burn pit operated by KBR said to cause health problems

Baghdad burn pit operated by KBR said to cause migraines, breathing problems and rashes


Feb. 1, 2010, 12:02AM

Mayra Beltran Chronicle A front-end loader moves trash to a waste-burning pit at Camp Taji, about 100 yards from where soldiers of Houston's 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team are assigned. 

CAMP TAJI, Iraq — One night in mid-January, a shift in the wind sent a sudden flurry of white flakes into a detainee internment facility guarded by soldiers from Houston’s 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

The Texas Army National Guard troops weren’t witnessing a rare Baghdad snowfall. The flakes drifting from the pitch-dark sky were ash and bits of charred trash belched from an open-air burn pit about 100 yards from the outer walls of the internment facility.

Operated by Houston-based contractor KBR, the pit consumes 120 tons of garbage a day here at Camp Taji, a U.S. military base north of Baghdad. On calm days, noxious smoke billows upward and dissipates into a smog-like haze. When the wind blows, the acrid-smelling fumes pour into towers and yards where about 800 Texas troops from the 72nd keep watch.

“It hovers over like a blanket,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Ethier, 36, of Montgomery. “After it rains, you’ll get puddles of stuff. It’s like a yellowish, brackish color. It looks metallic. It’s just disgusting.”

Soldiers say a fine layer of soot settles on their uniforms and black goop comes out when they blow their noses. They complain of migraines, breathing problems, coughs, sore throats, irritated eyes and skin rashes.

The Texas Guard troops aren’t the first to report problems from exposure to burn pits at U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan.

Forty-three pending federal lawsuits allege that KBR and other contractors working for the U.S. military poisoned workers and soldiers alike by incinerating toxic waste in improperly supervised burn pits. The suits have been consolidated in a Maryland federal district court.

Houston-based Halliburton and a Turkish contractor frequently are named as co-defendants, documents show. However, a Halliburton spokeswoman said the company has “no responsibility” for burn pit operations and should be dismissed from the litigation.

KBR denies blame

The cases feature more than 300 plaintiffs — and the family members of a dozen dead workers and soldiers — all of whom say they were harmed by improper burning of waste by wartime contractors or the military at 20 sites in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. At least nine people say they were sickened by the burn pit at Camp Taji.

KBR officials told the Houston Chronicle that their company was involved in operating only 10 of the sites named in the lawsuits. Mark Lowes, vice president of litigation for KBR, said the company disputes that any burn pit directly harmed the health of soldiers or others, saying litigants have failed to prove exposure to burn pits caused the many symptoms they later reported suffering.

While KBR continues to operate 12 burn pits in Iraq — including Camp Taji’s — and one in Afghanistan,the company said it does not decide where to locate them or what items to burn.

“KBR operates burn pits in accordance with guidelines approved by the Army,” the company said. “Further, it is the Army that also decides where on base to locate the living and working facilities for base personnel.”

More than 100 people have complained about a massive burn pit a few kilometers north of Taji at Iraq’s Joint Base Balad — including allegations that lithium batteries and human body parts were incinerated there, according to lawsuits filed against KBR and others in Houston, San Antonio and elsewhere. KBR repeatedly has denied operating the pit, though it recently got a multimillion dollar contract to replace pits at Balad with four huge incinerators.

Sgt. 1st Class El “Kevin” Sar, who considers Houston his hometown, said he did two tours of duty at Balad in 2006 and 2007 and developed migraine headaches, shortness of breath and chronic insomnia. Sar said he ended up being evacuated because of a recurring lung infection.

Sar, 41, remains abroad on active duty as a U.S. Army solider, but said he continues to take medication for chronic lung problems doctors have blamed on toxic exposure.

“I can’t run anymore. I still cough and once in a while I feel chest pain and regurgitate mucus,” said Sar, one of 18 Texas-based victims named in a burn pit lawsuit originally filed in San Antonio.

In that case, othersoldiers from San Antonio, San Marcos and smaller cities also complained exposure to burn pits caused them health problems, including acute abdominal pains, chronic respiratory infections, burning sensations in the lungs, a tumor and persistent cold-like symptoms.

David McMenomy of Lampasas and Steve Wayne Palmer of Forney complained of health problems suffered after being stationed at Camp Taji. McMenomy developed a football-size tumor that was removed from his hip.

Soldiers doubtful

Military officials acknowledge that burn pit smoke causes acute short-term health effects in some people — such as irritated eyes and coughing — but the long-term effects are less clear.

A Navy Health Research Center study that evaluated 40,000 service members found a 30 percent increase in complaints immediately after deployments, but no increase in respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis two years later, said Col. Timothy Mallon, a physician assigned to U.S. Forces-Iraq.

Texas soldiers at Taji are reluctant to believe that exposure to the burn pit won’t cause them long-term harm.

“You can’t start your day without a splitting headache,” said Staff Sgt. Charles Bloom, 31, of Sugar Land.

Staff Sgt. Scott Jarvis, 45, of Houston, said he tries not to think about what’s being burned and released into the air.

“I have a very hard time breathing sometimes, and I have a big rash on my face,” Jarvis said.

1st Lt. Sean Lindley, 27, said the air aggravates his throat and eyes. The health worries increase the stress of deployment, he said.

“It sucks being here,” said Lindley, who’s from Portland, Texas. “You’re away from your family and friends and everything and then you add this on top of it.”

Lawsuits specifically allege contractors and others dumped a human arm, other body parts, batteries, tires, asbestos and a variety of toxics into burn pits. Aside from Balad, all of those pits apparently remain in operation, said Susan Burke, one of two chief counsels for plaintiffs in the consolidated cases.

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Posted by on Feb 1 2010. Filed under Burn Pits News, Houston Chronicle. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment for “Baghdad burn pit operated by KBR said to cause health problems”

  1. This is such a sad state of affairs when the most powerful country in the world still does not take care of its’ soldiers. I am happy to hear that you and your law firm are helping to keep some of these third parties accountable.

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