The primary decision that NATO officials reached in Chicago this week was to leave behind an Afghanistan contaminated by a decade of hazardous military waste. The plan is for NATO to wash its collective hands of their toxic handiwork. There are estimated to be more than a thousand NATO dumpsites located in Afghanistan, holding thousands of tons of buried hazardous waste. If these NATO officials did the same in Germany or the United States they would be serving long prison terms for their environmental crimes, but Western officials are conveniently ignoring both national and international law in Afghanistan. Buried liquids and other wastes are a slow-moving and expanding time bomb, and therefore NATO officials are seeking to scurry home before the full extent of the problem can be assessed and the costs of cleanup calculated. United Nations officials, to their discredit, have opted to remain silent, revealing once again the Western bias of the UN against developing countries.
This author previously served in the U.S. Air Force and was involved in the Pentagon’s base environmental cleanup program, now called DERP (the Defense Environmental Restoration Program). He also later worked for Bechtel Environmental as a contracts manager.
It is a certainty that thousands of hazardous chemicals and materials were shipped to Afghanistan in NATO vehicles, electronics, weapons, explosives, machines and other equipment, along with millions of gallons of fuel, oil, hydraulic fluids, solvents, degreasers, de-icing fluids, pesticides, poisons and herbicides, etc. Carcinogenic used oil would have been dumped into the soil, as would most other waste. Solid wastes would have been placed into a landfill or set afire in burn pits. The reports are that anything that broke and could not be repaired was buried or burned, creating a stunning soup of highly toxic contaminants at each military location. That is NATO’s toxic legacy.
In order to address this scandal, we begin with the assumption that there are seven dump site location types:
1. Ten large air bases such as Bagram Air Base, KAF (Kandahar Air Field) etc.
2. Five training bases
3. Thirty FOBs (Forward Operations Bases)
4. 200 large COPs (Combat Outposts)
5. 200 small COPs (Combat Outposts)
6. 200 temporary bases and staging areas that were used at one time or another, and
7. 400 off-base Afghan landfills used by NATO forces or their contractors.
The process begins by creating a history of each one of these locations. That history must detail every hazardous or toxic material that was ever transported to the location. Unless NATO officials could confirm that the same quantity of material was later removed from the location, it must be assumed that the waste was released into the soil or otherwise buried at the site.
Next, all photos, including aerial photos are assembled of the location to help pinpoint where hazardous materials were used and disposed. Then sampling needs to take place at all the disposal sites identified and at various depths, with laboratory analysis for a broad range of pollutants. Eventually, a three-dimensional map can be created which tracks the contamination. That map will permit the generation of cleanup plan and a site restoration plan.
On most NATO bases the entire internal perimeter area will likely have to be scraped down to at least one meter, with all the contaminated soil being shipped back to the NATO country involved. Shipping costs may be in the range of $1,000 - $2,000 per ton.
It is not simply the confines of the base or outpost that have to be sampled and remediated, but the perimeter will usually have to be expanded out 2,000 meters on all sides from the base or outpost. Contractors will need to recover all of the unexploded ordinance that was fired from the base over the years. That will require excavation and the use of shaker tables to sift out the spent bullets and shells.
The unknown is the cleanup of the burn pits used at each site. The toxic soup contained in each might extend down hundreds of feet and might require an enormous excavation. A large combat outpost that operated for several years might require as much as $100 million to remediate. That would include the costs to restore the site back to its original condition. Up to 50% of these costs would pay for the security detail needed to protect the contractors and the waste haulers. Large bases such as Bagram might require more than a billion dollars to remediate.
These costs do not include the ecological price tag. That would involve assessing the long-term damage to roads, trails, forests, bridges, rivers, streams and historical areas. It would require that NATO officials identify every location that suffered an air strike and to send out teams to evaluate the need for site restoration and for the recovery of unexploded ordinance, especially cluster bomblets and depleted uranium.
What country in the future would ever welcome NATO assistance, because NATO will eventually retreat, leaving behind a polluted landscape as its calling card? The next country that needs NATO’s help must insist that NATO officials first deposit $50 billion in a Swiss trust account to pay for the environmental damage that NATO is sure to cause.
Regarding Afghanistan, its Government should bar NATO officials from removing any of their equipment, unless and until each base, outpost, staging area and landfill is remediated or has adequate funds set aside to clean up 100% of all pollutants for each location, and restore each site to its natural condition.
Final Notes: NATO will never announce the costs of this week’s lavish Chicago summit, but it is likely that the money spent planning, transporting, protecting, feeding and pampering 50 heads of states and their entourages could have fed and housed every Afghan refugee, internally displaced person and orphan, of which there are millions. These annual NATO conferences are a stunning waste of money and a reminder of the West’s shameful colonial past. The pictures beamed to the world were of wealthy Western overlords, feasting and toasting each other as they decided the fate of a poor developing country 10,000 miles away.
The conferences, if they have to be held at all, should always be held in Afghanistan, but that would never do. While it is acceptable for Western leaders to declare the war over and the Taliban defeated (as they sit comfortably in Chicago), such deceit would be exposed under the unforgiving glare of the Afghan sun.