Jeanette White: Notes from the Senate: Taking proactive approach to toxic burn pits

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We did a couple pretty amazing things in the Senate this past week. One was passing a constitutional amendment that would protect reproductive rights. I am not going to write much on that right now. But I do want to write about another bill that we passed: S.111. It concerns the burn pits that are used by the military at their camps in various theaters. Many people are not aware of this issue — nor was I until it was brought to my attention in December by Sheriff Keith Clark.

Some of the pits are up to three football fields in size. What goes into them is anything the military needs to get rid of: disabled vehicles, tires, human waste, animals, body parts, ammunition, building materials (in fact one report said that the stream could not be completely identified). It is all thrown in, covered with accelerant and burned. How much is burned? On one base alone it was estimated that up to 100-200 tons per day were burned.

The releases from it are very toxic. The Institute of Medicine identified 51 toxins and said there were many more. These toxins are in the air the soldiers breath and in the sand that puffs up with every step and wind storm. It gets in their lungs, their eyes, their skin — in fact it becomes part of them. General Petraeus warned the military of the danger it posed to soldiers 10 years ago and yet they continue to be used.

They are associated (but not officially) with diseases of the kidneys, liver, reproduction, respiratory, and many different forms of cancer. This issue is this generation's Agent Orange. With Agent Orange it took many years (in fact we are still adding presumptive diseases to the list connected to AO) and many deaths before much was done. We cannot let that happen again.

So Senate Government Operations, which I Chair, has tried to do what we as a State can do. And the entire Senate agreed with our approach on Thursday in a 30-0 vote. We took testimony from a 33-year veteran who has less than two years to live, from widows, mothers, veterans, our federal delegation, the VA, the National Guard, the Vermont Medical Society, the Department of Health, Viet Nam veterans dying from Agent Orange who asked us not to let this happen again, from doctors who worked with veterans.

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Some of the most compelling and emotional testimony came from June Heston, whose husband Brigadeer General Michale Heston died in December, and Wesley Black, who is 33 years old and has less than two years to live. Mr Black said it is too late for him but it is unconscionable the way we treat veterans and if it can help others he will spend his remaining time fighting for them. Ms. Heston asked us to make sure she was the last widow to suffer because of what we are NOT doing for our veterans.

The VA has created a Burn Pit Registry that will be used for research purposes by the Institute of Medicine. The more people we can get registered quickly the faster the IOM will be able to create a list of diseases that are presumed to be associated with service in the five theaters that use the pits. And this means it will be sooner that veterans can get treatment and hopefully benefits.

The bill we passed is admittedly not as much as we would like to do. We acknowledge that we have no control over the DOD or VA. But we can and must do what we can for our neighbors who are and will suffer. So we have required the Dept of Health to work with the Guard to create a letter and pamphlet that will be sent to all Vermont medical providers identifying the symptoms and information on how to register for the registry. It will also create a communique that will be sent to all those in Vermont who may be eligible. We have no control over the VA but have asked them to do a number of things to make the registration process simpler and more convenient and to allow family members of deceased veterans the ability to register. Each of the entities we worked with are willingly taking this on.

We are a small state but this effort is already making a difference. Veterans and legislators from around the country are asking for our help in their own efforts and we have already seen a 10% increase in the registrations in Vermont. So just one person asking us to do something may lead to a groundswell and perhaps will have influence on changing our policies and treating our veterans better.

If anyone wants information on how to register call the Vermont Office of Veteran's Affairs, Bob Burke, 802-828-3380, robert,burke@vermont.gov or Adjutant General Gregory Knight at theVermont National Guard, 802-338-3140, gregory.c.knight,mil@mail.mil. They will be helpful.

State Sen. Jeanette White, a Democrat, represents the Windham District. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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