As Iraq war winds down, US military cleans up hazardous waste

Recent reports have accused the US military of irresponsible disposal of millions of pounds of hazardous waste, mostly from the Iraq war. But after investigating, the military says EPA standards are being upheld.

By , Staff writer

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    US Army soldiers show decontaminated barrels at a purpose-built facility to treat military-generated hazardous waste at Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, on July 18. The military has treated 32 million pounds of hazardous waste -- from solvents and chemicals to soil contaminated with petroleum products -- as it prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, amid news reports of dangerous materials dumped in Iraq during the seven years of the US military presence.
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American commanders in Iraq are working to demonstrate that they are clearing the country of tens of millions of pounds of US-made hazardous waste, rebutting claims that they are leaving behind a toxic legacy as US troops withdraw.

Hundreds of barrels of all types and all colors – filled with everything from discarded lithium batteries and oil filters to powerful chemicals like hydrochloric acid – are stacked in a dusty purpose-built compound on a US base at Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

This and a sister facility on another base have so far processed 32 million pounds of “regulated” waste – more than half of that soil contaminated with petroleum products. The material has been decontaminated, crushed or shredded, and then sold as scrap in Iraq, or recycled and shipped abroad.

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“We don’t use the word ‘hazardous,’ because in Arabic that translates into chemical, biological, and nuclear waste,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman, during a tour of the site that included Iraqi environment officials.

“Everything we do here, as we process these materials, is so there is no [adverse] effect on Iraqis. No materials are left behind,” said General Lanza. “This highlights how we are not only good stewards here, but our relations with the Iraqi people.”

Effort to dispel reports of widespread, dangerous waste

The official tour this week is part of an effort to dispel popular perceptions among Iraqis of any harmful legacy of seven years of occupation and American troop presence, which peaked at more than 170,000 troops. The waste has been voluminous, generated at hundreds of bases now being handed over to the Iraqis, as US troop strength drops to 50,000 by Sept. 1.

And the US military has been stung by recent news reports that portrayed a profligate dumping of hazardous materials, in violation of Pentagon rules. The Times of London reported that “open acid canisters sit within easy reach of children, and discarded batteries lie close to irrigated farmland.”

The Times did not give details of those two cases. But it did quote a Fallujah scrap dealer with blistered skin on his legs and hands, saying: “I got this when I worked on what was supposed to be American scrap metal.” The dealer said a doctor told him “these are the effects of dangerous chemicals.”

Military following EPA guidelines, it says

US officials have sought to locate such sites, but also insist that the military has been largely effective at collecting at 14 sites most of the hazardous material created or found in situ since 2003. All waste was further consolidated in mid-2009, after the completion of the two facilities at Tikrit’s Camp Speicher, 95 miles north of Baghdad, and at Al Asad Airbase, 100 miles to the west of the capital.

“Everything is done here to US standards” of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says Bradley Banker, the manager for both sites and a contractor with the publicly traded URS Corporation, a San Francisco, Calif., company, which handles engineering jobs as diverse as US government hydroelectric and nuclear power plants to managing infrastructure of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “Everything we do here could be moved to America, and we would be up to standard in America.”

Some barrels are packed with used batteries, others are labeled with triangular “Hazardous Waste” warning stickers, with words scrawled across them like “Paint Related Waste,” “Resin – Flammable,” and “Used Oil Filters.”

Two drums have Cyrillic lettering on them, left over from Iraq’s close relationship with the Soviets in the 1970s. Also collected and disposed of was a 1950s-era gallon jug of a toxic cyanide-based pesticide – with dangerous instructions, says Mr. Banker, to sprinkle by hand and then simply wash hands afterwards.

“Anything we found in Iraq was brought here for treatment,” says Banker, who has managed the project for a year. Prior to that he was a schoolteacher in Bangkok for nearly a year, and before that worked on oil pipeline and platforms in Nigeria.

Iraqi environment officials investigate

Iraqi officials with their first access to such a treatment site took photographs of the barrels and their labels, the wooden rinsing rack, the evaporation ponds where acids are neutralized and turned into salt, and the nearby $15 million incinerator for burning everything from grease to solvents.

In open spaces nearby, sprinklers sprayed water to keep alive microbes that were slowly – in a three- to six-month cycle – eating petroleum products in contaminated soil that had been spread out in the sun.

“You cannot feel safe through one visit to one site. This [clean-up] site…is reassuring, but what about the rest of the sites?” asks Hikmat Gabriel Gorgees, an engineer in charge of planning with Iraq’s environment ministry. Two Iraqi committees have been set up to investigate the scale of the problem and the US handling of hazardous wastes.

The ministry had read the news reports about US dumping. “We have heard about them but never seen them by our own eyes,” says Mr. Gorgees. “This is the first site being visited by environment ministry teams, we have not seen the rest, but [the Americans] have opened all doors for us, plus we did ask them to allow us to take samples, soil samples, underground water samples.”

An Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari, stood before television cameras at the site and sought to reassure Iraqis. “Understand that these are war leftovers, and we are making efforts to keep them away from people,” he said.

US military: Contractors may be to blame

Reports of “regulated waste being left all over the countryside” also prompted the US military to investigate – and then to counter the claims, said Brig. Gen. Kendall Cox, the US commander in charge of engineering in Iraq.

“The intent was to insure, through the media … there’s a clear understanding that we are taking every measure possible … to protect the environment and treat all regulated waste and materials appropriately,” said Brig. Gen. Cox.

“We have a very systematic process in place to receive materials, treat them and dispose of them properly,” said Cox. “We haven’t identified any problems with our processes. What [we] did identify is potentially there are contractors who are aren’t dealing with their regulated waste properly.”

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