As Veterans Day approaches, a gift of some good news. Thanks to a lot of lobbying by members of congress and vet organizations, and backed up by great reporting by the Army Times and by hundreds of personal testimonies and affidavits by individual soldiers and veterans, Congress has passed some tough new guidelines regarding the frighteningly toxic burn pits on our military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I wrote about for TAC this month, individuals are returning from war with horrific, unexplained symptoms ranging from chronic breathing problems like sleep apnea to skin rashes, nerve damage, cancer and pulmonary distress. The Pentagon — so far — denies that these symptoms can be traced back to the burn pits, which have been burning in the middle of military installations like Camp Taji and Balad Air Force Base for as long as troops have been overseas and in some cases burn some 150 tons of mixed trash (including medical waste, hardware, chemicals, food, etc) a day.

Thanks in part to reporting by TAC and Antiwar.com, Reps. Ron Paul, R-TX, and Walter Jones, R-N.C, joined Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., as the only Republicans to co-sponsor the Democratic House bill, sponsored by Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y, which made it through the conference committee and is headed to the President’s desk this week as part of the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.

It includes provisions that will:

  • Prohibit the use of burn pits for hazardous and medical waste except if the Secretary of Defense sees no alternative;
  • Require the Department of Defense (DOD) to report to the congressional oversight committees whenever burn pits are used and justify their use, and every six months to report on their status;
  • Require DOD to develop a plan for alternatives, in order to eliminate the use of burn pits; further, DOD must report to Congress how and why they use burn pits and what they burn in them;
  • Require DOD to assess existing medical surveillance programs of burn pits exposure and make recommendations to improve them;
  • Require DOD to do a study of the effects of burning plastics in open pits and evaluate the feasibility of prohibiting the burning of plastics.

This is definitely a first step – the Bishop bill would create a registry that would track all of the exposed troops, and that measure did not make it into the final legislation. Meanwhile, there is a massive class action lawsuit against KBR, for which soldiers are blaming for their illnesses, and other pending legislation, like the one proposed by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., most recently. He wants automatic priority health care and benefits for veterans suffering from toxic exposures on the battlefield. We’ll see how that goes over at the DoD.

Cross posted at Antiwar.com