The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.
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How America’s war devastated Afghanistan’s environment

Part VII

A badly beaten, 300-mile stretch of road links Kabul with Kandahar, passing south through the provinces of Maidan Wardak, Ghazni and Zabul. Postapocalyptic dust storms blur the pockmarked road ahead. The drive takes 12 hours and the route is choked with overloaded trucks trudging along with little attempt to avoid the potholes. Strewn along the sides of the highway are bullet-riddled police cars and Humvees, the remnants of the Taliban’s triumphant storm across the country toward the capital in 2021. At the regional NEPA office in Kandahar city, staff member Matiullah Zahen describes his struggles with waste burning and sewage dumping by contractors at the giant 3,633-acre Kandahar airfield used by American and Afghan forces. “One and a half years ago we went to the base and told them what they can and can’t burn and where, that it had to be a specific place, not just dumping and burning everywhere,” he says. But waste disposal was not high on the list of priorities for the commanders at the base, he says, and nothing changed. “The kind of thinking of the base commanders was, ‘It’s the contractor’s job to handle the waste, I don’t care how he does it, just get it out of my face. I got other problems, I’m fighting a war,’” Zahen says. Zahen accompanies me to the airfield and we drive out, my letters of permission from several ministries and the governor in hand. We wait for the base commander to show us where one of the burn pits was, behind a nowpadlocked gate that leads to the international side of the airfield. Two hours later, we are told to leave. After we leave the maze of high blast walls winding out of the base, we turn off the main road into the Khoshab area, just to its west, home to about 15,000 people who earn a living from the surrounding agricultural land. Khoshab is the closest village to the airfield. Here, I find 22-year-old Laal Mohammed working his land in the shadow of the airfield’s walls. Despite the brutal hazy midday heat, he doesn’t break a sweat. His wheat and vegetable fields are less than 100 yards from the base’s perimeter. His family’s home is surrounded by a carefully kept garden with rows of vegetables and a burst of blossoming flowers. Inside, there’s a well where they get their drinking water, which was dug 15 years ago and is 20 yards deep. They moved here eight years ago from neighboring Zabul province. Five years ago, both he and his sister Nazaka, 21, started having kidney problems. “The doctors found kidney stones many times,” he tells me. “The doctors we went to see told us to stop drinking the water here,” he says, adding that they can’t use their neighbors’ water as they have the same wells. “And we cannot afford to buy bottled water.” He takes me to a site across from the base that locals call Qazi Qarez, where he says the tankers used to dump sewage and trash once or twice a week. From 2014 until the Americans left, they would burn the waste in five locations here, he says, pointing to the spots. Today, it’s an open, empty stretch of land but, just a year and a half ago, he says, plumes of thin smoke could be seen trailing upward to the sky. Despite U.S. military waste management guidance from as far back as 1978 that said solid waste should not be burned in an open pit if an alternative is available, burn pits persisted in Afghanistan. DOD officials stated that the management of solid waste is not always a high priority during wartime, according to the Government Accountability Office. CENTCOM regulations specified that when an installation exceeds 100 U.S. personnel for 90 days, it must develop a plan for installing alternative waste disposal technologies to open-air burn pits. CENTCOM officials told SIGAR that “no U.S. installation in Afghanistan has ever complied with the regulations.” The U.S. military used openair burn pits almost exclusively to dispose of its solid waste during its first four years in Afghanistan. Only in 2004 did the DOD begin introducing new disposal methods, including landfills and incineration, a year after soldiers returning from deployment complained of shortness of breath and asthma. And while CENTCOM attempted to limit the use of burn pits beginning in 2009, reliance on them continued: In 2010, the Pentagon reported to Congress that open-air burning was the safest, most effective and expedient manner of solid waste reduction during military operations until current research and development efforts could produce better alternatives. Shortly afterward, CENTCOM estimated that there were 251 active burn pits in Afghanistan, a 36.4% increase from just four months earlier. That same year, health studies raised concerns that the burn pits’ toxic smoke contaminated with lead, mercury and dioxins could harm the adrenal glands, lungs, liver and stomach. In 2011, guidance finally stated that burn pits should be placed far away from areas near troops. The DOD hired contractors like KBR (formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root) to manage the burn pits. Over the years, KBR has faced numerous lawsuits related to the burn pits and the water treatment plants it operated in both Iraq and Afghanistan. According to multiple reports, including a 2010 report by Nasuti, the former U.S. Air Force captain, the waste burned in the open-air pits included petroleum and lubricants; paints, asbestos, solvents, grease, cleaning solutions and building materials that contain formaldehyde, copper, arsenic and hydrogen cyanide; hydraulic fluids, aircraft de-icing fluids, antifreeze, munitions and other unexploded ordnance; metal containers, furniture and rubber, Humvee parts and tires; and discarded food, plastics, Styrofoam, wood, lithium-ion batteries, electrical equipment, paint, chemicals, uniforms, pesticides, medical and human waste. Animal and human carcasses including body parts were also thrown in. Though CENTCOM regulation prohibits a host of materials and hazardous chemicals from being burned, these and other discarded items were set on fire using JP-8 jet fuel, which released benzene, a known carcinogen. Plumes of the burnt waste hovered over the base and seeped into soldiers’ sleeping, working and dining quarters, often less than a mile away. The smoke included heavy metals, dioxins, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons and hydrochloric acid, among numerous other toxic materials. Kandahar airfield generated more than 100 tons of solid waste per day in 2012 and more than 5 million gallons of sewage water from 30,000 portable toilets. The DOD first brought 23 incinerators to Kandahar that same year at a cost of almost $82 million, but the machines proved extremely unreliable and costly to operate. One incinerator was delivered two years late and required $1 million of repairs before it could even be turned on. An inspection by SIGAR from 2012 to 2014 found serious mechanical problems and a reliance on burn pits instead. In 2015, SIGAR’s inspector general called the use of open-air burn pits “indefensible.” A few weeks before I headed to Kandahar, I spoke with an American official familiar with burn pits who had witnessed all manner of toxic waste being burned in the massive pits on U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The official, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, told me that the trash at the base in Kandahar “was all over the place” and that no one was paying attention to the specifications on what could be burned in the pit and when. The contractors “would just burn everything,” the official said. “I expected to see a big pile of ash, but all you saw was things that were blackened. It didn’t effectively burn everything down to nothing. I was like, why bother?” They said the enormous burn pits would be dug deep enough to be used many times and “when it got to a level where they couldn’t burn anymore, they would just shovel dirt over it and dig another one in another spot. They smelled horrible.” Most of the incinerators did not work properly or at all and wouldn’t be fixed, the official told me. At other times, personnel weren’t trained properly on how to use them, “so what all the bases did was go back to what they did before, which was burn pits” or dump waste in the land. The Afghan doctors Abdul Sami, 32, and Zabiullah Amarkhil, 31, know well the damage from the burn pits. The pair studied medicine together before working as trauma surgeons in military hospitals inside bases in Kunduz, Nangarhar, Kabul, Balkh as well as Kandahar, where they still work today. “I have seen patients with skin problems and eye infections, others had kidney problems because of the contaminated water, American soldiers also. We also had patients with acute gastroenteritis,” says Amarkhil, as we bundle into the back of a beat-up taxi. I had collected the doctors from the airfield after they finished their shift. From the New Lines Magazine

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The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.