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VA Fails to Set Up Registry of Troops Exposed to Burn Pits

A U.S. Marine exits a steel container, the lights illuminating the smoke from a trash-burning pit, at Forward Operating Base Jackson, in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan.

A U.S. Marine exits a steel container, the lights illuminating the smoke from a trash-burning pit, at Forward Operating Base Jackson, in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan. // Brennan Linsley/AP File Photo

Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., slammed the Veterans Affairs Department for failing to set up a registry of troops exposed to toxic pollutants from trash burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, as required by legislation they sponsored.

The law, signed by President Obama on Jan. 13, 2013, gave VA one year to develop, create and maintain an open burn pit registry of service members and veterans who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals and fumes from open air burn pits. Some of the sites measured acres in size and burned all kinds of trash, including chemical-laden batteries, electronics and plastics. Troops living or working nearby have said the fumes sickened them.

VA, in the burn pit section of its public health website, maintains that exposure to smoke or fumes from the trash sites does not correlate with long term health problems, based on research conducted by the Institute of Medicine in October 2011.

Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Udall, a member of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations subcommittee, asked VA Secetary Eric Shinseki why the registry has not yet been established, three months after the deadline, in a letter sent Wednesday.

“This delay is deeply concerning, particularly when similar registries exist within the United States government,” Corker and Udall told Shinseki.  VA, for example, has operated for decades an Agent Orange Registry for veterans exposed to that toxic defoliant in Vietnam.

The two Senators asked Shinseki to “provide Congress with information on the current status of the Open Air Burn Pit Registry, an accounting of problems that have arisen during the development of the registry, detailed information on remaining benchmarks to be completed before the Open Air Burn Pit Registry will become fully operational, and any information on how Congress can help to expedite the implementation of this critical program.”  

Nextgov asked VA similar questions. “The registry launch has been postponed until spring 2014 to allow adequate time to develop and test the software and hardware as well as to ensure data security and accessibility,” spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said in an email reply. She did not give a firm date for startup.

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