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By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military paid a contractor $5.4 million for an incinerator facility at a base in Afghanistan, even though it was finished 30 months behind schedule and had so many wiring issues it was never used, federal investigators said on Monday.
The firm that was due to operate the two incinerators at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Paktika province estimated the electrical problems would cost $1 million to fix, leading camp officials to decide not to use them, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report.
Failure to operate the incinerators meant that troops stationed at Sharana were exposed to potentially harmful emissions from open-air burn pits used to dispose of solid waste, the SIGAR report said, adding that the pits were operated in violation of U.S. military regulations.
The incinerators were turned over to the base in December, 2012. The base was handed over to Afghan control in October 2013, but the incinerators had already been torn down, presumably for scrap, the SIGAR investigators said.
"If the incinerator facility had been put into operation in August 2010, as planned, FOB Sharana would have been able to close its open-air burn pit," SIGAR said. "Because of the delays and eventual acceptance of an unusable incinerator facility, base personnel faced continued exposure to potentially hazardous emissions."
The U.S. military uses burning to dispose of all types of solid waste, including human and medical waste, leftover food, paper and plastics and other garbage, at small bases and outposts. Regulations say that if a base exceeds 100 U.S. personnel for 90 days, it must develop an alternative to open-air burn pits, such as incinerators.
"The Department of Defense takes the concerns associated with burn pit smoke exposure seriously and continues to study the possible long-term health effects," said Navy Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Chris Belcher, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said all but two bases in Afghanistan with a population of more than 100 personnel have closed their burn pits and use alternative means of solid waste disposal. He said the two exceptions operate under a waiver from Central Command.
The SIGAR investigation was the third this year to identify bases in Afghanistan that have spent millions of dollars on incinerators that they are either not using to their full capacity or not using at all.
A report in April said the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan paid a Turkish firm $5 million to build waste incinerators at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khowst province. The base accepted the incomplete facility but decided not to use it due to operational costs, investigators found.
The military spent $11.5 million to install incinerators at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, but the largest unit was not being used and the smaller unit was not being used to full capacity, SIGAR reported in July. Instead, it said, the camp was pursuing a contract to truck waste to a landfill.
The Army Corps of Engineers awarded the Sharana incinerator contract to Denver-based International Home Finance and Development LLC on September 18, 2009, with a scheduled completion date of August 2010. But transfer of the facility to the base did not occur until December 2012, the SIGAR report said.
International Home Finance and Development did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Dan Grebler)