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U.S. Troops, Taxpayers Burned By Pentagon Trash Policy in Afghanistan

A watchdog agency says the military used hazardous open-air pits and let incinerators sit unused for years.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan were put at risk because the Pentagon burned hazardous trash in open-air pits, and the military spent $20 million on incinerators that were never used, a government watchdog agency reported on Thursday. Tires and batteries were disposed of in the fume-spewing pits up to five years after Congress restricted the practice, according to a new report the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction sent to the Defense Department.

"Given the fact that DOD has been aware for many years of the significant health risks associated with open-air burn pits, it is indefensible that U.S. military personnel, who are already at risk of serious injury and death when fighting the enemy, were put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions from the use of open-air burn pits," Inspector General John Sopko said in a summary of the investigation.

For the first four years of operations in Afghanistan, open-air pits were used exclusively to get rid of solid waste that peaked at 440 tons a day. In 2004, the military began turning to landfills and incineration but didn't develop policies to minimize the pits until 2009. And a year later, there were still 251 active pits in Afghanistan, a 36 percent increase from months earlier, the report said.

A series of inspections revealed that while the military used construction funds to pay for 23 incinerator systems at nine bases, eight of those had never even been used, in part because they needed repairs. The inspector general concluded that $20 million was wasted because the systems sat dormant.