This Waste Really Hurts

As this is something I have written on previously it seems appropriate to note that today the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on open-air burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq

U.S. forces generate a lot of waste. According to the GAO U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of waste per servicemember each day. This waste may consist of plastic, styrofoam, and food from dining facilities; discarded electronics; shipping materials such as wooden pallets and plastic wrap; appliances; and other items such as mattresses, clothing, tires, metal containers, and furniture.

Assuming 50,000 troops in Iraq that is half a million pounds of waste a day. In Afghanistan it is nearly a million pounds a day. That doesn't count waste produced by contractors or other DOD components. It also doesn't include hazardous or medical waste. No matter how you look at it that is one heck of a log of garbage to burn.

Lawsuits have been filed in federal court in at least 43 states in which current and former service members have alleged, among other things, that a contractor's negligent management of burn pit operations, contrary to applicable contract provisions, exposed them to air pollutants that subsequently caused serious health problems.

The contractor, KBR, has moved to dismiss the suits, arguing, among other things, that it cannot be held liable for any injuries that may have occurred to service personnel because its burn pit activities occurred at the direction of the military.

GAO took no view in this report on any issue in this pending litigation involving burn pits. Nor did it evaluate whether the contractor has complied with the terms of its contract with respect to burn pit operations.

Still, the report DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management has some useful nuggets regarding contractor operation of the pits.

Regarding how the process works:

Typically, contractors such as KBR, DynCorp, and Fluor work under task orders. The task order process begins when a military customer, such as a commander in Afghanistan or Iraq, identifies a need, such as assistance in managing a burn pit. This need is documented in a task order statement of work, which establishes the specific tasks for the contractor, and the time frames for performance. In the case of contracting for burn pit support, the customer contacts its contract program management office (the contract office), which obtains a cost estimate from a contractor and provides the cost information to the customer. If the customer decides to use the contractor's services, the contract office obtains funding and finalizes the statement of work, and the contracting officer issues the task order and a notice to begin work. If the customer identifies a change in need, the process begins anew.

Additionally, the military services, as well as DCMA, perform contract management functions to ensure the government receives quality services from contractors at the best possible prices. Customers identify and validate the requirements to be addressed and evaluate the contractor's performance, and ensure that the contract is used in economical and efficient ways. The contracting officer is responsible for providing oversight and management of the contract. The contracting officer may delegate some oversight and management functions to DCMA, which may then assign administrative contracting officers to (1) provide on-site contract administration at deployed locations, and (2) to monitor contractor performance and management systems to ensure that the cost,
product performance, and delivery schedules comply with the terms and conditions of the contract. DCMA administrative contracting officers may have limited knowledge of field operations. In these situations, DCMA normally uses contracting officers' technical representatives who have been designated by their unit and appointed and trained by the administrative contracting officer. They provide technical oversight of the contractor's performance, but they cannot direct the contractor by making commitments or changes that affect any terms of the contract.

GOA notes that DOD bears a share of the responsibility for whatever contractors did wrong.

Since the beginning of hostilities in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the military has relied heavily on open burn pits to dispose of the large quantities of solid waste generated at its installations, but CENTCOM did not develop comprehensive guidance on operating or monitoring burn pits until 2009, well after both conflicts were under way. Furthermore, our site visits and review of contractor documentation found that burn pit operators did not always comply with this guidance. In addition, DOD health officials said that many items now prohibited from burn pits, such as plastics, have been routinely burned at U.S. military bases from the start of each conflict.

GAO also found that the Defense Department has not ensured that burn pit operators consistently followed relevant regulations. Between January and March 2010, GAO determined that, to varying degrees, the four burn pits it visited at bases in Iraq--one operated by military personnel and three operated by contractor personnel--were not managed in accordance with CENTCOM's 2009 regulation.

For example, GAO determined that operators at all four of these burn pits burned varying amounts of plastic--a prohibited item that can produce carcinogens when burned.

And sometimes a contractor operated a pit based on outmoded guidance.

The contractor operating the burn pits at two bases we visited did not have contracts reflecting current guidance. According to a senior representative of this firm, the MNC-I Environmental Standard Operating Procedure 2006 is the guidance referenced in its burn pit contract. Thus the company provided Iraq burn pit management activities in the context of that guidance, which contains less stringent requirements than the CENTCOM 2009 regulation. According to the contractor's representative, the company prepared plans, which DOD reviewed and approved, based on the MNC-I 2006 guidance. However, DOD officially requested the contractor incorporate MNC-I Environmental Standard Operating Procedure 2009 into its operations. According to Army contracting specialists, such contract modifications are typically long and tedious, often requiring months of negotiations. As of June 2010, DOD and the contractor had yet to finalize this update, at least in part because the contractor believed the new guidance would require activities beyond the scope of existing task orders.