Thursday, June 18, 2009

More lawsuits over burn pits that expose soldiers to toxins

From Air Force Times:

Lawyers for veterans who believe they became sick after exposure to the smoke from open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan have filed five more class-action lawsuits against KBR, the contractor that operated many of the burn-pit sites for the military.

The new lawsuits — filed in Florida, Kansas, Ohio, South Carolina and Utah federal courts — accuse KBR of exposing troops to toxins from giant burn pits used to dispose of garbage on bases. At Joint Base Balad, Iraq, 250 tons of garbage were burned every day at one point, including 90,000 plastic bottles each day. Troops have also documented the burning of petroleum products, amputated limbs of Iraqis, benzene and Styrofoam, as well as other materials known to produce cancer-causing toxins when burned.

The lawsuit in Florida includes the family of Air Force Maj. Kevin Wilkins, who died of brain cancer five days after a tumor was discovered. He had served at Balad, and when his doctor asked if he had been exposed to any toxins, Wilkins immediately suggested the burn pit.

“KBR utterly disregarded the safety of the troops when they chose to use open air burn pits and failed to use incinerators and other safer methods of waste disposals,” attorney Elizabeth Burke said in a statement. “The hazards of operating large open-air burn pits were well-known, and KBR promised to minimize the environmental effects of the burn sites they operated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, by forsaking safety for money, KBR willfully endangered these men and women who honorably served their country in military service or in support of the military.”

The military created the burn pits but, in many cases, contractors later took over the operations of the pits. According to military regulation, burn pits should be used as short-term waste management solutions, but many of the pits have been running since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

So far, 400 combat veterans have contacted Disabled American Veterans with consistent symptoms: respiratory problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, leukemia and lymphomas. Of those, about 190 are involved in the lawsuits.

Military officials maintain that there are “no known long-term health effects” from the burn pits.

The new lawsuits are in addition to nine already filed by Burke O’Neill LLC in Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Wyoming.

Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., has created a bill that would limit burn-put use as well as mandate that the military track service members who are exposed to smoke from the pits, as well as offer yearly physicals to ensure they have not become sick.