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Supreme Court declines to hear case about toxic burn pits on military bases overseas

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from veterans who had sued defense contractors over claims that toxic smoke from open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan caused them serious health problems. One of the contractors, KBR, countered that waste elimination procedures were directed by the military itself. As Hari Sreenivasan reports, the afflicted soldiers have no remaining legal recourse.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last night, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal in a case in which veterans sought to sue private military defense contractors for allegedly making them sick by burning toxic materials and garbage of all kinds in war zones.

    Hari Sreenivasan has an update to our original story.

  • Lt. Col. Rick Lamberth:

    You have to breathe, or you die. And, sometimes, even the soot would fly out of the burn pits and get on your uniform or on your vehicle.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Lamberth served a number of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And besides fighting a war, he was fighting to breathe.

  • MAN:

    That is what we live next to.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, the American operations there burned thousands of tons of trash and material over the years.

    And for the past decade, veterans of those wars have sued a number of major defense contractors, including KBR, for the way they disposed of garbage on military bases.

    All kinds of things went up in smoke, including items that are toxic when burned, such as batteries, paint, solvents, and tires, plastic water bottles, styrofoam, and shipping materials such as plastic wrap.

    We spoke to Lamberth four years ago. He told us exposure to burn pits smoke caused lung ailments that forced him to use inhalers.

  • Lt. Col. Rick Lamberth:

    I no longer can hold out to run. I don't have the stamina. At one time, I could go run five or 6.5 miles at a time, a 10k at a time.

    A lot of times even during the day, I cough and people look at me like I'm a smoker. And I have a lot of phlegm and a lot of mucus from it. Sometimes, it's embarrassing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hundreds of thousands of veterans who served in these wars were exposed to this kind of smoke because it permeated the bases where they lived.

    Starting in 2008, veterans began filing lawsuits. Last year, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the defense contractor KBR and the Defense Department. The court said it had no jurisdiction to rule on the case and that KBR was acting under the orders of the U.S. military.

    Last night, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not take up the case, which has 800 named plaintiffs filed in 60 cases. They will now have no further legal recourse.

    We spoke to Rick Lamberth today.

  • Lt. Col. Rick Lamberth:

    My reaction to hearing that the Supreme Court had denied the case about the burn pits, it was upsetting, disconcerting.

    The system and the politicians just sacrificed the veterans again. It's just a modern-day equivalent to Agent Orange. And they're going to wait until the maximum number of veterans die off.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    KBR, on the other hand, issued a statement, saying: "The Supreme Court made the correct decision, and we are pleased that this legacy case has reached final resolution."

    And they said the courts confirmed that — quote — "The U.S. military made all the key decisions regarding waste management in the war zone. As KBR has consistently stated, the limited number of burn pits operated by KBR were operated at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military."

    Veteran activists say they will now ask Congress to pass legislation to provide medical and financial assistance to those whose lives have been injured from exposure to burn pit smoke.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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