A Lawsuit Over Wartime 'Burn Pits'

Josh Eller, a military contractor stationed in Iraq in 2006, was driving through Balad Air Base when he spotted the wild dog. He wasn't sure what was in its mouth—but when Eller saw two bones, he knew he was looking at a human arm. The dog had pulled the limb from an open-air "burn pit" on the base used to incinerate waste. Eller says it's "one of the worst things I have seen."

Since hearing Eller's story, lawyer Elizabeth Burke has signed on 190 additional clients with complaints about burn pits at 18 military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. By now, she says, all pits should have been replaced by pollution-controlled incinerators. She's filed suits in 17 states against KBR, the company contracted to provide waste-disposal services at these bases, accusing it of negligence and harm. Burke was shocked to learn what her clients saw incinerated: Humvees, batteries, unexploded ordnance, gas cans, mattresses, rocket pods, and plastic and medical waste (including body parts, which may explain the arm). Fumes containing carcinogenic dioxins, heavy metals, and particulates, according to an Army–Air Force risk assessment, waft freely across bases.

Burke's plaintiffs mostly suffer from chronic or unusual medical complications that they believe were caused by burn-pit exposure. Shawn Sheridan, who served two tours at Balad, says black smoke from the pit was so thick at times he couldn't see through it with night--vision goggles. Sheridan, 26, was healthy when he enlisted six years ago. Now he has a kidney disease, chronic bronchitis, and a painful skin condition.

KBR won't discuss burn pits while it reviews the suits. A spokeswoman e-mails that KBR isn't responsible for the Balad pit (Burke alleges it is) and that "any burn pit operated in Iraq or Afghanistan is done pursuant to Army guidelines." But Kevin Robbins, a former KBR employee who ran a pit near Al Kut, says he got no guidelines on what could be burned when he arrived.

The May 2008 risk assessment of the Balad pit suggested "as much as several hundred tons" of waste was burned each day, but CentCom tells NEWSWEEK it's now down to about 54 tons. The report found allowable levels of toxins in its air samples. Still, two members of Congress have introduced a bill instructing the DOD to end the practice and monitor the health of service members exposed to fumes. "We certainly would not allow these burn pits in our own country," says Rep. Tim Bishop.