Supreme Court halts military burn pit appeals

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) A U.S. Supreme Court ruling has halted lawsuits against a military contractor accused of using open air burn pits that many veterans have blamed for illnesses.

The lawsuits claim the burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq led to health problems for thousands of military members who breathed in smoke that hung over bases.

Everything was burned in the pits including tires, medical waste, human waste, metals and trash. There were no landfills and infrastructure to deal with waste in the middle of make-shift cities in war zones. The activity has gone on for years and some are calling the burn pits the new agent orange.

A WCAX investigation revealed that many Vermonters also got sick, and they too, blame the burn pits.

Of the 19 people in the Vermont military police unit, three got prostate cancer -- two died. Several have early signs of cancer and others have unknown illnesses and growths doctors haven't seen before.

In addition, Vermont's former Assistant Adjutant General died of a rare pancreatic cancer. He deployed three times to Afghanistan and worked just 300 yards away from a burn pit, breathing in smoke from those fires everyday. Before he died he told WCAX the burn pits were to blame.

Hundreds of military families in the U.S. filed lawsuits against the military contractor KBR -- formerly owned by Halliburton -- which ran the burn pits. But the Supreme Court ruled in favor of KBR, rejecting appeals from military veterans and leaving in place a federal appeals court ruling that more than 60 lawsuits over the burn pits could not go forward.

The appeals court said KBR was essentially under military control and had little discretion in deciding how to manage the waste. KBR's attorney said the decision to use burn pits was "made by the military."

The Department of Veterans Affairs set up a registry to document veterans' possible exposure to burn pits, but says more studies are needed to see if there are long-term health problems associated with them.

There is also a push in Congress to get exposure to burn pits to qualify as a disability.