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.

Tom A. Peter
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
Soldiers at Forward Operating Base Warhorse outside Baquba, Iraq throw trash into the burn pit. This is ultimately where both recycling and trash end up at FOB Warhorse.

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.

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

With contractors providing almost all basic services for US forces, their numbers have already reached unprecedented levels: Contractors now outnumber uniformed US military personnel in Afghanistan, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

"The fundamental problem is that the government has no capacity to do things itself," says Pratap Chatterjee, author of "Halliburton's Army." "As a result, they're willing to overlook little things like recycling and even big things like fraud so long as their mission is met."

Although the US has used military contractors as far back as the Revolutionary War, they didn't begin to proliferate until the early 1990s. Former President George H. W. Bush began relying more heavily on contractors to reduce the government's footprint. In the Balkans conflict, the first billion-dollar contract was awarded to KBR.

As the role of contractors increased, the Clinton administration passed a ruling in December 2000 to weed out firms with felony charges in their pasts and "blacklist" contractors that had past environmental, labor, or federal-trade violations lodged against them. Former President George W. Bush, who took office a month later, repealed the law in 2001.

Obama administration may take harder line

Today, if a contractor fails to fulfill its obligations, a DCMA spokesperson says that the normal protocol is that the firm will be issued a "corrective action request" to tell the government how it will address the cause of the compliance issue. He refused to discuss KBR's recycling case, and declined to be named, in accordance with the agency's policy.

Allegations of misconduct in Iraq targeting companies including KBR, its former parent company, Halliburton, and Blackwater – renamed Xe Services – have periodically drawn the wrath of US lawmakers. But government-contractor experts say that the focus on providing for troops in the field often may trump such concerns.

"All of these negative things that are happening are not seemingly making an impact at a significant level where policymakers are paying attention. Instead, it's quite the opposite; policymakers are still seeing them as cost-effective," says Dawn Rothe, a criminology professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., citing an August 2008 Congressional Budget Office report as evidence.

Before the government reconsiders its use of contractors, Dr. Rothe says she thinks there will have to be "more revelations of some serious harm, legal discrepancies, and criminal behavior."

But while allegations and investigations of corruption have so far done little to crimp contractors' style in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are signs that the Obama administration is looking to effect systemic change. SIGIR, which reports to the secretaries of State and Defense, is auditing a further 22,000 transactions involving $10.7 billion – a substantial chunk of the $50 billion the US has spent to date on reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

"We're at a point now with tightening budgets and the economic crisis ... that we're also not going to put up with waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending," says Scott Amey, general consul at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight in Washington, who adds that there's a push to increase the government's ability to defer, detect, and prosecute fraud."At that point we're going to place an emphasis on contractor accountability as well as getting the most value out of the dollars that we're awarding these contractors."

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