Pentagon officials seem to support the following epitaph for Afghanistan:
“We had to pollute the Afghan countryside in order to save it from the Taliban."
In reality, the American military did not have to pollute. It chose to be sloppy and reckless and to ignore environmental standards.
On October 28, 2009, George W. Bush, in one of his last acts as President, signed into law H.R. 2647, which included provisions of “The Military Personnel War Zone Toxic Exposure Prevention Act.” The Act was sponsored by Congressman Tim Bishop of New York. It banned the use of burn pits in Afghanistan by the military. What is disturbing about H.R. 2647 is that an act of Congress was necessary to force the Pentagon to act responsibly and cease its use of toxic (open air) burning pits. It raises the question about how committed the Pentagon is to environmental protection and to the people of Afghanistan.
The impetus for this legislation was a courageous report written by Lieutenant Colonel Darrin L. Curtis, PhD BSC. Lt. Col. Curtis was a Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander at Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2006. He wrote a report on the environmental and health impacts of the Balad burn pits. His report, dated December 20, 2006, concluded that the burn pit was “the worst environmental site” he had seen in seventeen years of environmental work in the United States. He characterized the smoke released by the military as: “an acute health hazard” to everyone who has been deployed or will be deployed to Balad. He disclosed that the U.S. Army completed a study in April 2006, that supported his findings. It was generated by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. Lt. Col. Curtis’ report was reviewed and endorsed by his equally courageous superior, Lieutenant Colonel James R. Elliott, MC, SPS, Chief Aeromedical Services. After that, the report went up the chain of command to more senior military officers much less courageous. They and the Pentagon ignored the report’s findings.
This was not the first such warning the Pentagon ignored. In the Fall of 2004, a U.S. Army Engineering publication, called “Engineer - The Professional Bulletin” reported that by 2002, Kandahar Airfield was facing “a growing human health and environmental threat” from the uncontrolled burning of hazardous waste. The U.S. Army vaguely claimed the problems had been solved by 2004. This was not true.
In 2008, the Pentagon published a private research study that seemed to confirm that American military commanders view environmental rules as being a nuisance which they are free to ignore, with no consequences. That study was the subject of a damning October 3, 2008, article by Kelly Kennedy, writing for the Military Times. It was entitled “Army Making Toxic Mess in War Zones.”
The article was prompted by the release in September 2008, of a Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Pentagon. The work was conducted by a Rand subsidiary called the Rand Arroyo Center. The report detailed a horrific series of environmental spills, releases and disposals in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to an early draft of the report, the U.S. Army generated a June 11, 2008, memo from Deputy Assistant Secretary Addison Davis IV. He reportedly stated that: “It does no good to win the war only to forfeit the peace.”
Bruce Travis of the U.S. Army Engineering School stated that there were no environmental rules complied with in Iraq from 2003-2008 (this would presumably apply to Afghanistan also). He went on to tell the Times that an estimated 11 million pounds of hazardous waste exist (i.e., were disposed of) in Iraq.
Rand investigators interviewed American military commanders up to the battalion level about why they were not dealing with and stopping the pollution they were causing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of their responses were:
“It is not our job.”
“We are in the desert. What does it matter?
“We are here to fight a war not pick up trash.”
“We are just passing through and do not have time.”
If these responses are truly representative of the American military, Afghanistan has no chance of protecting its lands from American pollution.
In December, 2009, R. Craig Postlewaite, acting director of the Pentagon’s Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, told Matthew D. LaPlante of the Salt Lake Tribune that the burn pits were a minor environmental problem. LaPlante dismissed the health risks, claiming that the objections were all cosmetic (i.e., soldiers objected to the sight of the smoke and the smell, not the content). This continues to be the position of the Pentagon.
At the present time, the Pentagon does not appear to be interested in addressing any of the past contamination it has caused. Instead, it is looking forward and claiming that its new incinerators will safely treat all future waste. While dozens of incinerators have apparently been installed in major bases across Afghanistan, this is not a comprehensive solution. In fact, as explained below, it may not even be a partial solution.
The exact number of American military bases in Afghanistan is apparently a closely guarded secret. CBS News, on February 10, 2010, published a report by Nick Turse entitled: “the 700 military bases of Afghanistan.” CBS claims that about 400 of the bases belong to Coalition forces, most of which are American. These facilities can generally be characterized as:
- Air bases
- Air fields
- Forward Operating Bases (FOBs)
- Fire bases
- Coordination Centers
- Patrol bases
- Combat outposts (COPs)
Each of these 350-odd facilities may have one or more burn pits, landfills, or disposal pits. As incinerators are not being installed at each facility, the risk is that burn pits are continuing to operate. This article addresses the risks and dangers of using incinerators.
Thermal destruction units (TDUs) generally fall into two categories. Incinerators and pyrolytic thermal units. The former seeks to destroy waste by burning it and the latter by heating it. An incinerator applies flame and oxygen to burn hazardous waste. A pyrolytic unit places hazardous waste into a screw-fed cylinder or chamber. The chamber is heated, but the flames never touch the material. Pyrolytic units tend to burn cleaner because there is no oxidation of the waste. Unfortunately the Pentagon has opted to utilize incinerators in Afghanistan.
Incinerators can potentially work in Afghanistan. The problem is that they come in all different sizes, types and configurations. Some of these might work and the rest would not.
In order for an incinerator to safely and successfully function:
1. The incinerator should operate at a high enough temperature for a specific period of time. This is referred to as its DRE (Destruction Removal Efficiency). For hazardous materials, the DRE should be 99.9999%. It is referred to as “six-nines.” To achieve this DRE, depending on the feedstock, the incinerator may have to operate as high as 1400 degrees Centigrade. Remember, even at this DRE, an incinerator is never perfect. It will always emit some hazardous materials into the air and it will always be emit some potentially dangerous submicron particles (i.e., ultra fine dust);
2. The incinerator should be configured with primary and secondary combustion chambers;
3. The incinerator should have a multi-layered APCS (Air Pollution Control Systems). That would include having at least one water scrubber for metals and acids, and an ESP (Electro-Static Precipitator) to capture particulates;
4. Bag-house ash and the bottom ash should be collected hourly and carefully managed;
5. There should be hourly monitoring of flue gas emissions, including sampling for submicron particulate emissions;
6. There should also be fugitive air monitoring of ash management tasks.
7. Finally, agreement needs to be reached with the Afghan government as to the final disposal of the highly concentrated and toxic ash. Ideally, it should all be shipped back to the United States for final disposal.
A few chemistry facts regarding incinerators are necessary.
First: They are designed to burn organic chemicals and materials. They do not work on metals and can even make metals more toxic by oxidizing them.
Second: Plastics should never be burned. They release toxic compounds too numerous to test for. For example when burned, PVC plastic piping will release chlorine gas which can be a lethal poison.
Third: Combustion efficiency is difficult to measure where the feed rates and feedstock are not uniform.
Fourth: Reactive and explosive materials should be segregated out of the feedstock.
In summary, it is unlikely that the Pentagon’s incinerators are being operated in conformance with the requirements set forth above. If they are not of the proper quality and if they are not being managed as safely as this author recommends, the incineration remedy is not much better than the burn pits.
One of the other problems with the incineration “remedy” being employed by the Pentagon is that it treats a symptom rather than a cause. The cause of the problem is that the American military has a logistics system which is excessively and unnecessarily complex, and which therefore produces an exorbitant and unnecessary amount of hazardous waste. Consider this comparison:
1942: A German Panzer division needed from 30-70 tons of supplies per day.
1968: A North Vietnamese Army division needed less than 10 tons of supplies per day.
2010: An American division needs in excess of 3,000 tons of supplies per day.
There is an addiction to technology and gadgets within the Pentagon which can be harmful to military preparedness and effectiveness. All this fancy technology requires an endless supply system to keep it functioning.
Even with these devices, the American military seems unable to detect a land mine or IED composed of mainly wooden parts and using a simple nitrate explosive. Its night vision equipment does not work in rain or fog or twilight. Infrared sensors cannot distinguish a civilian from a Taliban soldier. All the money that is spent on technology might be more usefully spent on something as simple as teaching every American soldier to speak Dari or Pashto.
During the American Civil War, the Union Government almost lost the war because its generals were overly dependent on their cumbersome logistics system. Confederate armies moved swiftly and lightly, while Union forces moved slowly with large supply trains. An exasperated President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to General N.P. Banks, dated November 22, 1862, in which he lamented the failure of Banks to commence military operations until he had received a long list of supplies.
Lincoln wrote: “this expanding and piling up of impedimenta has been so far our ruin and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned.” The failure of General George McClellan to advance until he had 100% of his supplies eventually led to his firing as the Union’s military commander. Confederate General Richard Stoddert Ewell reportedly said that “the road to glory cannot be followed with much baggage.”
In conclusion, the solutions to the American military’s waste problem are complex. They must include a major effort in waste minimization, segregation of hazardous from non-hazardous waste; strict management and return to the United States of all radioactive waste; and possibly the use of incinerators, but only if they can be operated safely, with a DRE of 99.9999% for all the wastes they burn; and as long as they do not burn plastics. All latrines and washing facilities must be carefully managed. Finally all toxic ash and other potentially hazardous wastes must be shipped back to the United States for disposal.
The final part of this series will address potential remedies to the wastes that have already been released into the Afghan countryside.
The author is a former U.S. Air Force Captain. He advised on environmental cleanups at Logistics Command regarding the Air Force’s most contaminated bases and depots. He then worked for Bechtel Environmental and was involved in Superfund cleanups across the United States and radiological cleanups at U.S. Department of Energy sites. He later served as a consultant to a group of environmental remediation companies, smelters and waste recyclers.