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Two U.S. senators insisted Tuesday that Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki reveal why his agency is nearly three months late in creating a legally-mandated registry of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans potentially poisoned — some lethally — by exposure to toxic trash-fire trenches.
The so-called "burn pits," scattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, spewed acrid smoke while breaking down damaged Humvees, ordnance, mattresses, rocket launchers, and even amputated body parts. Some were ignited by jet fuel.
Perhaps the largest such dump was in Balad, Iraq, spanning the length of 10 football fields. The plumes produced have been dubbed "this generation's Agent Orange."
On Jan. 10, 2013, President Barack Obama signed a law giving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs one year to create and maintain the Open Air Burn Pit Registry, meant to identify and monitor veterans who inhaled the pollutants. The VA also was directed to later report its findings to Congress.
"While the necessity for some delay is understandable, the VA has failed to adequately explain why the delay has occurred, which steps remain to be completed before the registry is available for the use of our veterans, and provide specific information on when the registry is expected to be completed," wrote Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
"This delay is deeply concerning ... The lack of urgency and communication from the VA is even more troubling," the senators wrote.
The registry's launch has been postponed to "spring 2014" to allow "adequate time" to develop and test the system's software and hardware as well as to ensure data security and accessibility, said Victoria Dillon, a VA spokeswoman.
Once the index goes live, veterans can join without being enrolled in VA health care, Dillon said, adding the agency "encourages all veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, and the Gulf War to participate." They can sign up now for personal log-ons.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to caring for veterans who have lung and other health conditions possibly related to their deployment," Dillon said.
Meanwhile, veterans groups are unsure how many troops were exposed or have fallen ill due to inhaling the vapors. A private, veteran-run website, BurnPits360.org, lists 16 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who served near the dumps and later died from a variety of cancers and lung ailments.