A lot of that waste is being burned in open pits that create smoke, fumes and toxins that foul the air and water and create health problems, according to a report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress.
The burning has been conducted by military contractors, including Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root, and they are defendants in lawsuits filed in 42 states (now consolidated into one suit in Maryland federal court) by soldiers who were exposed to the pits and allege that they caused a variety of debilitating health problems. These include respiratory ailments, migraine headaches, memory loss, neurological damage and leukemia. At least one soldier has died.
Here's a description of the pits from the complaint filed in court:
Halliburton/KBR burn pits are so large that tractors are used to push waste onto them and the flames shoot hundreds of feet into the sky. Every type of waste imaginable was and is burned in these pits, including trucks, tires, lithium batteries, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, petroleum-oil-lubricating products, metals, hydraulic fluids, munitions boxes, medical waste, biohazard materials (including human corpses), medical supplies (including those used during smallpox inoculations), paints, solvents, asbestos insulation, items containing pesticides, polyvinyl chloride pipes, animal carcasses, dangerous chemicals, and hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles.
The Department of Defense has been slow to act, according to the GAO -- partly because of a lack of waste disposal engineering expertise in Afghanistan and Iraq, and partly because it wasn't clear who was responsible. It wasn't until April of 2009 that the DOD conceded that the pits could cause problems, at least for soldiers with pre-existing health conditions or certain genetic factors.
CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command) didn't develop guidance for the pits until September of 2009 -- harmful waste like batteries and tires isn't supposed to be burned in the pits now unless there's no alternative and commanders say it's necessary.
The military is also making more effort to recycle waste, to use landfills for some waste and to burn the rest in incinerators, which are enclosed and are more efficient burners (although they too can produce harmful emissions).
Incinerators are expensive, though, and need six to eight months to transport and install. Landfills should be lined to keep them from contaminating the soil and water tables (most now are not), and they are a target for scavengers, both animal and human.
The DOD and the VA have begun to study the effects of the burning pits on air pollution and on soldiers' health, according to the GAO.
Last April, however, as part of a report to Congress, the DOD said that "during military operations, open air burning will be the safest, most effective, and expedient manner of solid waste reduction until current research and development efforts produces better alternatives." Burning pits are also the cheapest way to dispose of waste, the DOD claimed, although the GAO says DOD hasn't studied the alternatives thoroughly enough.
The DOD says, however, that environmental planning and hazardous waste are not always high priorities during war:
...because of the operational and logistical pressures, safety and security risks, and the overall lack of resources available initially to manage waste. Furthermore, DOD officials reported that base planning and resource investment decisions are difficult, including planning and implementing resources to manage waste, because bases are in constant flux during wartime operations.
The picture at the top of this post show the burn pit in Camp Taji, Iraq, last January.
The picture to the left is the Warhorse burn pit in Iraq just before it was set fire in February, According to the GAO, the pit contains "electric wire, plastic, and unopened trash bags—all prohibited from burn pit disposal under CENTCOM’s 2009 regulation..."
You can get the full GAO report here.