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Senator urges action on burn pit legislation, requests hearing

Ohio U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown talks with a local media representative during an interview session in a hangar here, Nov. 24, 2014. The senator spoke with Mahoning Valley media as part of an installation visit to meet with YARS leadership and discuss his legislation to ensure upgrades are made to Ohio's Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard C-130 fleet by 2020 to meet federal and international airspace regulatory constraints. (Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr./U.S. Air Force)

Sen. Sherrod Brown on Wednesday renewed calls for new legislation and a congressional hearing to address the health concerns of service members and veterans who were exposed to burn pits while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Brown, D-Ohio, said Congress needs to hear directly from service members and veterans who have suffered serious health problems related to the open-air burn pits used to dispose of toxic waste.

The burn pits exposed deployed service members to dangerous chemicals and fumes that have been linked to a series of deadly illnesses, said Brown, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Hundreds of open pits were used at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan – until banned by Congress in 2010 – to burn trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris and released hazardous smoke into the air. Some troops exposed to smoke from burn pits have attributed medical conditions, such as respiratory issues and cancer, to the toxic fumes.

“We need to pass this bill,” Brown, who is weighing a run for the presidency, said Wednesday during an afternoon call with reporters. And “we need hearings on the Veterans Affairs committee.”

The Burn Pit Accountability Act, S. 191, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is also a presidential candidate, was introduced Jan. 17 and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 30 senators including Brown.

The legislation requires the Defense Department evaluate service members for the toxic exposure during routine medical exams and directs more data collection.

“What this bill does is give us the data,” said Navy veteran Art Davis of Ohio, who was also on the call Wednesday with Brown. Davis is also a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization, one of several veterans and military organizations supporting the legislation.

Brown said lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure veterans have the care that they need to address the dangers that they face while serving the country. The legislation would be a first step to addressing the unique health concerns.

The comments come a week after a congressman conducted a series of town hall meetings in Texas to address legislation in the lower chamber on burn pits.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, is pushing two House bills that he sponsored to expand the tracking and evaluation of veterans and service members who spent time living or working near burn pits while deployed overseas.

The first bill, the Family Member Access to Burn Pits Registry Act of 2019, or H.R. 1001, would expand the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to allow family members of veterans to register their loved ones who might be too sick to do so or have died. The inability of family members to do this is “a gap in the law,” Castro said Thursday in San Antonio.

Created in 2014, the registry is managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and is open to veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, veterans who served in Djibouti, Africa on or after Sept. 11, 2001, Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm veterans and others who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after Aug. 2, 1990.

The second bill, the Burn Pits Veterans Revision Act of 2019, or H.R. 1005, would create a diagnostic code and evaluation criteria for obliterative bronchiolitis, a medical condition often linked to burn pits. The law would also create a disability rating for the illness.

“That would do great justice to our veterans suffering from exposure,” Castro said.

Despite the political divides in Congress, Castro said he believes this issue has the ability to “transcend politics.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Rose L. Thayer contributed to this report.


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