What Agent Orange was to the Vietnam War generation, toxic burn pits might be to Gulf War–era service members. The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that “nearly 120,000 people…have registered with the Department of Veterans Affairs because of health problems they blame on their exposure to burn pits.” In remote areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, where even incinerators were impractical, the U.S. military employed an extremely low-tech method of waste disposal: simply tossing debris into a hole in the ground and igniting it with jet fuel.
The debris in the pits — human waste, dead animals, spent ammunition, batteries, plastics, damaged computers, and vehicle parts covered with paint — released a toxic brew that has caused debilitating respiratory issues and other illnesses for veterans who were in the vicinity. The Times story details the experiences of veteran D.J. Reyes, who is struggling from health effects of burn pit exposure that started in 2003. His father, a victim of Agent Orange from his service years, told his son, “This is your Agent Orange.”
Unfortunately, the VA seems to be taking the same approach to the burn pits that it took in the early days of the Agent Orange controversy: deny and delay. The VA set up a registry in 2013 to monitor the health effects of burn pit exposure among veterans, but routinely denies disability benefits based on exposure.
However, another avenue for compensation may be open to veterans. Many of the burn pits were operated by a civilian military contractor, KBR, Inc., a subsidiary of Halliburton. Attorneys filed a class action alleging “at least 10 people have died from health problems tied to burn pits” due to negligence in the operation of the pits. The trial court agreed with defendant KBR that “decisions on what and when to burn were made by the military,” and dismissed the case. Plaintiffs have filed an appeal arguing that “KBR’s actions were not consistent with military decisions set forth in the contract.”
At Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban, our veterans’ rights attorneys are following that case closely. We see parallels not only with Agent Orange, but also with the long-term effects of toxicity on rescue and recovery workers at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The collapse of the towers created a toxic plume that spread poison throughout the area, and the smoldering rubble continued to release toxins for months during cleanup and recovery. When workers came forward with respiratory and gastric complaints they said were related to their work at Ground Zero, the government initially resisted. But eventually Congress created the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victim Compensation Fund. Currently, the WTC Health Program recognizes 68 different cancers and several noncancer illnesses that are presumptively related to 9/11 toxicity. If the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan released similarly potent toxins, we fear that veteran complaints will increase in number over time, forcing Congress and the VA to act.
Attorneys at Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban have more than 200 years of combined legal experience. The firm handles appeals of VA disability claims throughout the United States. For more information, call 866-866-VETS or contact our office online.
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