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Questions arise over active military burn pits as Bilirakis moves to help victims

Photos provided to a local veterans group purport to show an open-air burn pit still operating at a military base in Taji, Iraq. The company said to be operating the pit denies any involvement and says the picture actually shows a fire that broke at the installation in June. [Courtesy of Lauren Price]
Photos provided to a local veterans group purport to show an open-air burn pit still operating at a military base in Taji, Iraq. The company said to be operating the pit denies any involvement and says the picture actually shows a fire that broke at the installation in June. [Courtesy of Lauren Price]
Published Aug. 2, 2018

PALM HARBOR — As Congress takes up legislation to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits overseas, military leaders acknowledged Wednesday that one pit still operates in Syria — as well as smaller pits throughout the Middle East where the waste that's burned isn't toxic.

"Burn pit toxin exposure is the Agent Orange of this generation," said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, speaking at a news conference Wednesday announcing bipartisan legislation he's co-sponsoring. Bilirakis compared burn pit exposure to health problems from the defoliant used in the Vietnam War, which the United States took decades to address.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE Burn pits sicken new generation of veterans

Thousands of veterans or more are suffering illnesses related to burn-pit exposure in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a June 2015 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2010 there were 251 active burns pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Smoke wafted from open-air pits burning everything from human waste to plastics to ammunition to tires, all ignited by jet fuel.

Since then, those pits have been largely replaced by incinerators, which burn hotter and thus cleaner, or by pits that do not burn hazardous materials.

Bilirakis said he planned to ask for a count of active burn pits from U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which is responsible for military activity in the region including the Middle East.

Later Wednesday, in response to a Tampa Bay Times request, CentCom said there is one — an active burn pit in Syria that has been reported to Congress as required. This and smaller pits burning waste that's not toxic are operating in accordance with a 2009 CentCom regulation, said Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a CentCom spokesman.

As he spoke Wednesday, Bilirakis was flanked by local veterans who say they are suffering breathing problems and fatigue from exposure to burn pits — including one who said waste still is being burned at other pits in the Middle East.

Navy veteran Lauren Price of New Port Richey said Veteran Warriors, a non-profit she runs, received images from an active-duty service member showing black smoke rising from what she said was a burn pit at a base in Taji, Iraq, one of the oldest U.S. -run installations in Iraq.

During a recent congressional roundtable discussion on the issue, Price presented six pictures taken there between January and June. In addition, she said her group has been told of a burn pit in Afghanistan.

Both, she said, are operated on behalf of CentCom by New York-based SOS International.

Officials from the company dispute that, saying they operate no burn pits in Iraq and have no related contracts in Afghanistan.

One photo Price obtained was actually a fire that broke out June 3 at the Taji base debris and scrap area, controlled by the Iraqi army, SOS International spokeswoman Jane Helmick said in an email to the Times. Helmick said the other pictures were in areas not managed by the company.

CentCom spokesman Brown said he could not comment on the pictures but did say the Iraqi military maintains the landfill in Taji and that it is operated by a contractor. The Iraqi military occasionally burns waste, Brown said.

Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican, said at the news conference Wednesday that his burn-pit legislation would create an independent commission of experts, half of them veterans, to review research on diseases caused by exposure to toxins from burn pits.

The commission would make recommendations to Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs on which diseases in veterans who were exposed to burn pits should trigger an automatic presumption that they arise from the exposure.

Once recommendations are made, the VA would have 60 days to declare the presumption and make qualifying veterans eligible for benefits and compensation. Bilirakis expects wide support for the bipartisan measure. The cost of the proposal has yet to be studied, but it may pose a problem.

Paul Lawrence, VA undersecretary for benefits, expressed concern Wednesday about providing benefits for yet another presumptive illness. Benefits for Navy veterans who served on ships and were exposed to Agent Orange, by comparison, could cost the VA as much as $500 million over the next decade, according to the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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