148th troops, other soldiers may have been exposed to toxic wasteThe toxic fumes from a massive open-air burn pit at Balad air base in Iraq present an "acute and chronic health hazard" to troops, according to a recently leaked Air Force memo.
By: Brandon Stahl, Duluth News Tribune
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Ken McDonald of the 148th Air National Guard said there was no way to avoid exposure to the massive open-air burn pit at the Balad air base in Iraq.
“We drove by it every day,” he said. “It was pretty nasty.”
McDonald, along with thousands of other troops who have served at Balad, may have been exposed to toxic waste from the pit, according to an Air Force memo that was leaked Tuesday on Wikileaks, a Web site that receives documents from anonymous sources to help expose government misdeeds.
“In my professional opinion, the known carcinogens and respiratory sensitizers released into the atmosphere by the burn pit present both an acute and chronic health hazard to our troops and local population,” Lt. Col. James R. Elliott, the chief of aeromedical services, wrote in the memo.
The memo, written in December 2006, said the pit had been identified as a health concern for several years, with one assessor calling it “the worst environmental site I have personally visited” in 10 years.
The leaked memo has drawn the attention of Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., whose spokesperson John Schadl said he’ll “keep a close eye on the situation.”
“If any of the troops have any concerns, we hope they’ll contact our office,” Schadl said.
Nearly two dozen toxins were released into the environment, according to the memo, including cancer-causing dioxins, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid and arsenic. That comes from burning chemicals, unexploded ordnance, Styrofoam, plastics, solvents and medical waste.
“It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years,” Darrin Curtis, a bioenvironmental engineering flight commander wrote in the memo.
The 148th has had three deployments in the last four years to Balad, the largest U.S. air base in Iraq and home to about 25,000 soldiers and contractors.
One airman with the 148th who asked not to be named said he and many other troops lived about a half-mile from the burn pit.
“If the wind was coming in right, the smoke would come right in on top of you,” the airman said.
While the memo was leaked this week, environmental problems about the burn pit were known since at least last October, when the Army Times reported on the memo and wrote that as of last summer the burn pit was taking in 147 tons of waste a day.
Representatives from the Pentagon and Air Force could not be reached for comment.
Lt. Col. Mark Vavra, a spokesman for the 148th, said airmen deployed to Iraq were told about the burn pit dating back to 2005. Asked if he was concerned about the health effects of the pit, he said, “I haven’t been able to see the report, so I can’t comment on that.”
When former News Tribune reporter Chris Hamilton embedded with the 148th in Iraq in 2007, he wrote: “To protect workers and to avoid leaving behind any American equipment or uniforms, every day the military burns the garbage in a pit that never stops smoldering, said base spokesman Maj. Damien Pickart.”
“Mornings can appear misty, but often it’s just the haze of smoke that stinks of melted plastic,” Hamilton wrote.
McDonald said so far he’s suffered no health consequences from being exposed to the burn pit and doesn’t know any other airmen from the 148th who have, either.
“But just guessing,” he said, “I’d imagine if there were any consequences, they’d be long term.”