Black smoke billowing from 10 acres of burning tires, batteries, asbestos, and amputated human body parts is a daily ritual at Camp Taji, a U.S. military base north of Baghdad, Iraq. Each day, 120 tons of garbage is dowsed in jet fuel and burned in this huge burn pit. Unfortunately, 800 Army National Guard troops are stationed about 100 yards from the giant crater.
The toxic fumes emanating from this pit regularly drift or snow down onto Camp Taji, leaving ash and trash particles on the base and on soldiers. "It hovers over like a blanket. After it rains, you'll get puddles of stuff. It's like a yellowish, brackish color. It looks metallic. It's just disgusting," said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Ethier. Former Army Sgt. Bill McKenna said he could actually taste the smoke. Many soldiers even say when they blow their noses, a black substance comes out.
The medical issues the soldiers suffer are the most alarming. Migraine headaches, chronic insomnia, sore throats, coughing, breathing trouble, eye irritation, skin rashes, tumors, cancer, and death are common symptoms.
Are Military Contractors to Blame?
Military contractor Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and several others (including Halliburton) have both been linked to the burn pits. KBR, however, claims that it does not decide what is burned in the pits and disputes that any burn pit directly harms the soldiers.
Even the military denied, as recently as October 2008, that there are short or long term health risks and denied heightened cancer risk from burn pits.
GAO Finds Burn Pit Operators Burning Restricted Items
On October 15, 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a 59 page report discussing the burn pit problem in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The GAO found that at four of the 22 Iraqi burn pits it visited, the operators were not complying with crucial portions of the guidance provided by the military in 2009. Particularly, operators were found burning restricted items that created harmful emissions.
Although the Department of Defense (DOD) discourages the long term use of burn pits, the DOD has been slow to use alternative means of managing waste, such as incinerators and landfills. The military has not followed CENTCOM (Central Command) regulations to monitor burn pit emissions, which conveniently has resulted in a lack of data about the severe health risks posed by burn pit emissions.
Toxic Exposure Liability
More than 300 military personnel (and the families of a dozen deceased workers and soldiers) have already come forward with legal claims against KBR and Halliburton for the life threatening effects of the toxic fumes from the burn pits. Those 300 plus plaintiffs have filed 43 federal lawsuits across the nation, but have recently consolidated into one class action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. As more information about the burn pits becomes public, injured soldiers will continue to come forward with medical problems and continue to file lawsuits.
Sovereign Immunity Defense
While Halliburton argues it has nothing to do with burn pit operations and should be dismissed from the lawsuits, KBR has been a bit more creative with its defenses. The company has claimed U.S. courts have no jurisdiction in the matter because it is a "political question" reserved for other branches of government.
KBR also claims that it cannot be sued because it was engaged in "combatant activities" by operating burn pits. Additionally, the company argues "derivative sovereign immunity" and therefore protected from liability.
Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that provides the government, or sovereign, immunity from civil or criminal liability. Derivative sovereign immunity is a doctrine that applies to government contractors and gives them immunity for essentially acting in the shoes of the government. KBR argues they are immune from liability under derivative sovereign immunity and should therefore be protected from these lawsuits.
Court Rejects Contractor Defenses
However, the federal district court rejected all three of KBR's defenses in September 2010 and allowed the lawsuits to go forward to the discovery process. The court stated that it is at odds with the concerns of "soldiers and civilians injured from wartime logistical activities performed by hired hands allegedly acting contrary to military-defined structures."
Private contractors KBR and Halliburton have received billions of tax dollars to design and operate burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, facts indicate that they have failed to follow military protocol and as a result sickened and even killed countless soldiers and workers.
If you or a loved one lived or worked near a military burn pit and suffer from any of the symptoms described above, contact a toxic tort attorney to discuss your rights and options.