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Planned burn pit lawsuits gain steam

March 16, 2009
By Kelly Kennedy
Air Force Times

As a law firm prepares to launch several lawsuits across the nation for 50 service members who say they were sickened by exposure to burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers wrote yet another letter to defense officials demanding more information on the problem.

Meanwhile, a retired Army captain who said he wants to help sick troops has produced a copy of a memo from Joint Base Balad in Iraq prohibiting service members from using soil or ash from the Balad burn pit to fill sandbags because of possible health risks.

"I was outraged when I first started working on these cases," said attorney Elizabeth Burke of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Burke O'Neil, LLC. "Now I'm struck by how sad it is."

Military Times has received more than 150 e-mails from troops, most of whom say they are sick, since running a series showing that medics and environmentalists in Iraq were concerned about burn pits, particularly at Balad, exposing troops to carcinogens and neurotoxins. The similarities among troops who are convinced the burn pit smoke made them ill are striking, including leukemias, lymphomas and breathing disorders.

"Our epidemiology team was pretty astounded by what they saw," Burke said. "We have service members from all over Iraq and Afghanistan complaining of sickness from the burn pits, not just Balad."

Pentagon officials have told Military Times that service members were not exposed to anything that could cause long-term health effects, and that the military has replaced much of the open-air burn pit at Balad with incinerators.

Burke said she planned to begin filing lawsuits against KBR, which operates the burn pits, in several states and ultimately will seek a class-action lawsuit.

In a case filed in December for Joshua Eller, a Georgia man who was a civilian contractor at Balad and said he was exposed to toxins from the burn pit and poorly treated water, a judge ordered discovery, allowing the law firm to investigate his case further, Burke said.

In that case, Eller said he saw a dog walking around Balad with a human arm in its mouth. Surgeons at Balad acknowledge human waste had been dumped in the pits at one time because they had no incinerators.

Eller also complained of skin lesions, vomiting and diarrhea, and severe abdominal pain.

Reps. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y.; Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.; John Hall, D-N.Y.; James McGovern, D-Mass.; Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y; and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., sent a letter dated March 3 to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology asking for data from the Defense Department tumor registry. Military Times asked for that information last month through a Freedom of Information Act request.