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Iraq: US military contractor burns recyclables, violating contract

KBR was contracted to recycle cafeteria waste at Forward Operating Base Warhorse. Such spotty accountability is coming under new scrutiny; an Oct. 30 report reveals that transactions worth $10.7 billion are being audited.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2009

Najlaa International Catering Services workers throw away trash from the cafeteria at Forward Operating Base Warhorse outside Baquba, Iraq. Though plastic cutlery and aluminum cans are separated for recycling inside the cafeteria, the trash and recycling are thrown into the same dumpsters and later burned.

Tom A. Peter

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Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Diyala Province, Iraq

In this desert fortress of housing trailers and concrete barriers, military contractor KBR has launched a recycling campaign – a kind of oasis in the military, an institution not exactly renowned for environmental activism.

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As soldiers exit the dining facility, run by KBR and its subcontractor Najlaa International Catering Services Iraq, they see signs along the emerald walkway urging those who "like to recycle" to follow the path and "Think Green." At the end of the path, soldiers sort aluminum cans and plastic silverware into separate bins.

But there's one problem: The recyclable goods are thrown into a pit with the rest of the trash and burned. While this is likely to disappoint soldiers who "like to recycle," it also is a breach of the government's contract with KBR to run the dining facility on FOB Warhorse, according to the US government's Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA).

The chimerical recycling program is apparently a microcosmic example of the spotty accountability under which contractors have operated – at substantial expense to US taxpayers. A report issued Oct. 30 by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) said that audits of $6.4 billion worth of contracts revealed "internal weaknesses," including inadequate oversight of invoices and excessive change orders. The report also noted evidence of duplicate payments and payments sent to fictitious addresses and unapproved contractors.

Eyewitness account: 'recycling' burned in trash pit

When first asked about the recycling program at FOB Warhorse, Xopher Bryant, program manager of Najlaa International Catering Services Iraq, responded in an e-mail, "The innovative recycling efforts we conduct at FOB Warhorse are a direct result of our company's wish to make a positive impact in all areas of our business dealings and are offered as a cost benefit to our client and customers."

When asked to show the actual recycling operations to a reporter at FOB Warhorse, Mr. Bryant, who was not on site, cited media policies that did not allow for such interaction between company officials and the press, but encouraged this reporter to investigate for himself. With two escorts from the military's public relations outfit – Spc. Christopher Bruce and Sgt. Jeremy Pitcher – the Monitor sought out the KBR manager in the FOB Warhorse's cafeteria, which serves 2,000 to 3,000 people. But the manager, who refused to be named, repeatedly refused to help the Monitor verify the existence of KBR's recycling program.

A soldier checking badges at the cafeteria's entrance said, however, that she was fairly certain that the recycling material was thrown in with the trash – a practice the Monitor witnessed firsthand.

When one of the trash cans used for "recyclables" in the cafeteria filled up, workers emptied it into a dumpster placed in a long row with identical dumpsters. That dumpster was then emptied into a dump truck that proceeded to collect the contents of numerous other dumpsters, confirmed by the military PR officials to be used for trash only, around the base. Then the truck's cargo – trash and "recycling" alike – was emptied into a huge burn pit and set ablaze. Apart from the cafeteria trash cans, nowhere on the base was there any evidence of infrastructure – dumpsters, trucks, or sorting facilities – for separating recycling and trash.

After the Monitor's eyewitness confirmation that the recycling program was not operational, Bryant and his colleagues did not respond to nearly a dozen e-mails asking for a comment.

Heather Browne, KBR's director of corporate communications in Houston, Texas, did respond, however. She said in a statement that KBR "is committed to environmental responsibility" and, based on its "ongoing review, at sites where KBR provides services related to waste disposal, KBR complies with all applicable military directives and contractual requirements."

Mission taking precedence over transparency