The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.

How America’s war devastated Afghanistan’s environment

Part: IX

Anyone who lives near Bagram airfield knows the burn pits by the smell of the raging barbecue of trash, usually overseen by Afghan employees, few of whom bothered to wear masks to protect themselves from the smoke and ash spewing from the pits. “When you are doing this kind of work for 10 years, 15 … there is nothing that can keep you safe,” one of the former base employees tells me. The enormous U.S. stronghold, about 15 miles north of Kabul, was home to 40,000 military personnel and civilian contractors at its peak, with airplanes and helicopters taking off and landing at all hours of the day and night. There were underground bars, a private airstrip, a Burger King and other fast-food joints, an Oakley sunglasses store and, until 2014, a secret detention facility. A giant diesel generator farm powered the base 24 hours a day, emitting a constant stream of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and sulfur. A 13-building waste management complex built in 2014 to house the base’s new incinerators seemingly had little effect. Until the U.S. exit in the middle of a July night two years ago, a haze of aerosolized garbage would emerge every week from what the American soldiers called “the shit pit” and mix with the already dustclogged air in Parwan province, residents told me. A half-hour drive away from Bagram, southeast of the provincial capital of Charikar, a graveyard of rusting trucks, tanks and helicopter engines used by the Soviet Union lay baking in the summer sun, the vehicles’ corroding residue leaching into the soil and water. Lining the road below were trucks belonging to scrap dealers, waiting to take the debris on to Pakistan. A few weeks later, it was all gone. While I had permission letters from the relevant Islamic Emirate ministries, I needed the authorization of Obaidullah Aminzada, Parwan’s new governor, to visit the sprawling base. As a member of the IEA, Aminzada had been a prisoner at Bagram for four years while it was under the control of the U.S. military. Now, he was effectively in charge of what had been the Pentagon’s largest military base in Afghanistan. “When the blasts started, we knew it was a Friday,” the governor tells me coolly in his office, surrounded by his assistants, in the heart of Charikar While he was a detainee, he had been kept in darkness but he knew from the sound “and that smell” that the military was conducting controlled detonations of military equipment and ordnance at Bagram. “We knew what day of the week it was by the detonations,” he laughs, turning to one of his assistants, who nods in agreement. Aminzada invited me to lunch with the governor of Bagram district. I had been promised access to the sprawling base and I’m eager to see inside, post-American control. So I accept the invitation despite my reservations. The lunch involves me — the only woman — sitting alone in one room for an hour and a half, with the men in another, their rollicking laughter floating across the courtyard. Finally, we say our goodbyes and head out to the base. We made it to the gates, but no further. The commander, from whom I needed permission, was not at the base, I was told — the same thing that had happened to me at the bases in Nangarhar and Kandahar. I watch as the gates to the base open to let a Ford Ranger roll in. Children carrying sacks larger than themselves stuffed with an array of scrap try to sneak in, only to get chased away by an IEA guard perched atop a rundown Humvee decorated with plastic flowers. The moment is a far cry from the scene that greeted the bioenvironmental engineer and U.S. Air Force Reserves Col. Kyle Blasch when he arrived at Bagram in the summer of 2011. The commander of the security forces at Bagram had contacted his team about researching the base’s burn pit. Blasch’s team conducted the only occupational sampling study on U.S. personnel near the military’s burn pits in Afghanistan. At the peak of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Bagram was burning from 2,300 to 4,000 cubic yards of refuse per day — enough to fill 175 to 300 dump trucks. Smoke from the burn pits, mixed with dust and other pollution, garroted the guards as they worked 12-hour shifts at the base checkpoints and 10-yard-high guard tower. New rules from the DOD had come in prohibiting the burning of specific materials, but it didn’t matter, as the researchers found that 81% of waste was still going to the burn pit, including prohibited items such as plastic bags, packaging materials, broken construction materials and aerosol cans. The purpose of the study was to see what the soldiers were actually breathing. Blasch’s team outfitted members of the security forces with personal sampling monitors. He was able to outfit the study subjects with four monitors each, which included pumps, filters and breathing tubes. Blasch said they were eager to help. The results were unequivocal. The levels of airborne pollutants registered by the monitors worn by each soldier exceeded the shortterm military exposure guideline level. Those near the burn pit and waste disposal complex exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality thresholds by a factor of more than 50. “Right now, we have a lot of question marks,” said Blasch, who is now associate regional director for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northwest-Pacific Islands Region, before I drove to Kandahar. In 2011, an Army memo stated that the high concentrations of dust and burned waste present at Bagram Airfield were likely to affect veterans’ health for the rest of their lives. The memo noted that the amount of pollutants in Bagram’s air far exceeded the levels permitted under U.S. government guidelines. From the New Lines Magazine

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The Kabul times, Afghanistan Trustable News Agency.